The biggest takeaway from Jo Sunghee’s film Space Sweepers is this: there will be capitalism in a post-apocalyptic space society. And since there is capitalism, there will subsequently be poverty, debt and large amounts of harmful waste. The film is set in the year 2092; Earth has become uninhabitable as no plant life can survive on the surface anymore, and the air is poisonous. A corporation called UTS had built a new home for humanity on Mars using genetically modified plants. But there’s a catch, only those who have the money can become UTS citizens, which means most of humanity is left to their devices on Earth and a remaining few float around space selling scraps of space debris to earn their bread.
To begin with, the dialogue and plot of the movie isn’t pitch perfect ﹘ the villain, James Sullivan (played by Richard Armitage), is a bit caricatured and bears an uncanny resemblance to Elon Musk, and the narrative is rather clichéd. Our protagonists, Taeho (played by Song Joong-ki) and Captain Jang (played by Kim Taeri) do a good enough job making space look simultaneously cool and miserable. And five-year-old Dorothy (whose real name is Kot-nim) is the perfect emotional core for the film. At times, the characters feel under-developed, even with a running time of 136 minutes. But it’s not as bad as when the third act melts into a pot of cheese by painting James Sullivan as the sole problem, and the sole solution becomes killing him off. It’s a disappointing but not unsurprising climax; the neo-liberal, cookie-cutter quick fix to world problems. At least we get our sweet (imaginary) revenge on Elon Musk.
Ultimately, however, the film has its plus points as well. For one, the world-building is convincing enough and the CGI is pretty cool. The story is gripping and funny. Watching Kim Taeri clad in leather jackets and spitting profanities for nearly two hours isn’t that bad a sight either. Most importantly, Space Sweepers sparks a rush of satisfaction in any viewer who’s had enough of SpaceX philosophy and how rockets are going to save the world.
The political message of the movie regarding the environment, unlike quite a few sci-fi films, is not only loud and clear but also comprehensive. Firstly, the idea that corporations will bury solutions to the climate crisis to prioritize their profits could very well be a reality, but what’s more interesting is that the movie almost concludes that technology won’t save humanity from our problems, that we need to radically change our economic structures, that making the world more equitable is part of saving the planet – until it doesn’t. Which of course, is the real dystopia ﹘ that technology, which has the great potential to liberate so much of humanity, is in the end appropriated by capitalism to reap profits.
All in all, Space Sweepers is pleasantly critical of global capitalism for a blockbuster, and not simply in a sensational, vague way, if you cut it some slack. Moreover, it’s a truly internationalist film, with characters of many ethnicities and countries, and a script that moves seamlessly across languages. It doesn’t feel forced in the least, and for once, it’s relieving to know that the human race’s diversity of language and culture ﹘ the film is truly multilingual, with different ethnicities speaking their own language, connected by translator devices that everyone has ﹘ will survive the end of the world. Perhaps it’s a sign that non-Western audiences and creators are more committed to linguistic diversity (or less bothered by it). I’d watch it if I were in the mood for something lighthearted and fast, but I wouldn’t say it’s a must-watch.
PS. Also recommended if anyone is sick of seeing white people in sci-fi, only because it’s a place we’ve all been in.
In recent years, within the science fiction community, there has been a reckoning—of sorts—with the genre’s racist, sexist, and colonial past. From pioneer and first-contact stories being thinly-veiled justifications for colonialism, to male-coded obsessions with conflict and conquest, to a near-absence of non-white characters except as props or as antagonists, there is much in this history to confront, to discuss, and to overcome. And as the last decade has shown, this discussion is not always a comfortable one.
In his book, Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said talks about the “contrapuntal canon”. In discussing how colonialism forms an (often) unacknowledged backdrop to the classic literary texts of the Western canon, Said writes that, nonetheless, “we must … read the great canonical texts with an effort to draw out, extend, give emphasis and voice to what is silent or marginally present or ideologically represented in such works. The contrapuntal reading must take account of both processes – that of imperialism and that of resistance to it, which can be done by extending our reading of the texts to include what was once forcibly excluded.”
While Said’s point is about tendencies internal to literary texts, we can also think about it in the context of literary traditions. Science fiction is not a monolith: even as racism, colonialism, and sexism played a dominant role in SF-production through the long 20th century, there were always writers and texts that questions, challenged, and subverted that dominant paradigm. The contrapuntal canon, or the hidden transcript, as it were.
At Strange Horizons, we see ourselves as committed to a plural and diverse vision of SFF, and therefore, as a continuation of this older – and sometimes submerged – tradition of against-the-grain writing. To know – and understand – more about our forebears, for this Fund Drive Special Issue, we decided to interview Chandler “Chan” Davis, one of the most outstanding exponents of the contrapuntal canon, at a time at which the dominant, regressive tendencies of science fiction were at their apogee: the 1940s and the 1950s.
A mathematician and a science fiction writer, Davis was notoriously dismissed from the University of Michigan, and jailed, during the McCarthy years. He wrote a range of science fiction stories (some of which are collected in the anthology, It Walks In Beauty), exploring themes around nuclear disarmament, sexism in society, labour and capital, and first contact and language. The science fiction critic, T.G. Shenoy, recently put together a compilation of his stories, which can be accessed here).
Now 95 years old, Chandler Davis very kindly agreed to this interview, which was conducted via collaborative Google Doc earlier this year. The interview also contains responses by Hannah Taieb, Professor Davis’ daughter. Through this interview, we hope to give you a window into a lost – but important – part of the history of our genre and community.
Gautam Bhatia: Let me start with a somewhat broad set of questions. You wrote science fiction in the 1940s and 1950s as an avowed communist, at a time when the United States was consumed by the Red Scare (which saw you jailed for a time, as well). Your stories reflect your politics, whether it is satirising corporate culture in “Adrift on the Policy Level”, or the very direct references to union-busting in “Last Year’s Grave Undug”. How welcoming and open was the science fiction community at the time to left-wing ideas? Was it more difficult, say, to publish pro-Union stories than anti-Unions ones (such as “The Roads Must Roll“, for example)? Was there a group of writers who shared your views and beliefs, and wrote stories that, in a similar fashion, reflected those views?
Chandler Davis: The science fiction community in the 1940s was a strange conglomerate. The Futurians were Communists or sympathizers from before my time; Robert Heinlein had several biases including a sentimental acceptance of militaristic values; John Campbell had his own biases, including a worship of technical fix carried over from the Hugo Gernsback era … I could go on and on. The strangest thing was the extent to which it was a community, without people dropping their individuality. Now to some degree this was illusory: an author might think it prudent not to rhapsodize about the wonders of a future Soviet America in submitting a story to an anti-communist editor (prudence we had to practise in our non-SF life as well), and an author might try to improve chances of acceptance of stories by writing under pseudonyms concealing gender or ethnicity.
To some degree it was mere expression of allegiance to the science-fiction tradition we all honored. But on the whole it was a genuine sense of community, across fracture lines which outside the genre-bubble, in the real world, were guarded by snarling watchdogs. I don’t think I resented “The Roads Must Roll” when it appeared, for example, I may even have been grateful that unions were recognized as part of the scene, but my firm pro-union beliefs were not shaken. (Going to work in a union shop about that time, I volunteered to serve as a shop committeeman the first chance I got.) We listened to ideas coming from ideologues of world-views we didn’t share at all. It was for me a liberating time in the same way as the New Left twenty years later. Maybe somewhat older leftists like Phil Klass and Fred Pohl didn’t feel the same liberation.
Hannah Taieb:I was moved and fascinated to see that the “bubble” of science fiction fans and writers took shape so firmly as a community, superseding the harsh divisions of 1940s/50s America. I guess as a daughter, having grown up watching my father pushed away and attacked by McCarthyism, it was moving to me to imagine that within the sci-fi community Chan was not rejected by sanctimonious red-hunters, or at least that he didn’t experience things that way— didn’t see himself and other leftists as somehow in a separate world. Instead, he experienced a sense of “community across fracture lines”, a feeling I didn’t get the sense of Chan often experiencing.
GB: In 1949, you wrote an article titled “Critiques and Proposals”, that dealt with stereotyping in literature generally, and in science fiction in particular. In that article, you called upon science fiction writers to make an active effort to not only avoid stereotyping (on grounds of race, gender, ethnicity etc.) but to work towards breaking them down, even if it means an – initial – defamiliarising effect for the reader. You made the point that the very fact that much of science fiction was set in the future allowed writers to imagine realities in which those stereotypes no longer existed – foreshadowing something that Ursula Le Guin would say many years later, about the role of science fiction writers being to imagine alternatives (including to capitalism). Do you think that more than other genres, science fiction allows for such possibilities, and that writers in the genre should be actively thinking about how to construct such possibilities in their fiction? CD: Oh, thanks for bringing this out so clearly, Gautam! Yes, emphatically. Is this to say merely that science-fiction ought to be always utopian (imagining and figuring forth a better world) or dystopian (warning against wrong policies by exhibiting horrid futures they might lead to)? Not at all. With Ursula LeGuin, I want SF to open up thinking about the future in more complex ways too.
GB: In “Critiques and Proposals”, you talked about how editors (in 1949) were unlikely to accept a black or Jewish individual as the protagonist of a story, and how science fiction continued to have problems with gender (even though it was ahead of other genres of writing at the time). In many respects, the science fiction has made great advances in these respects over the years. But one thing that you don’t mention in your article is class—and in that respect, there doesn’t seem to have been such an advance. I can’t, for example, recall many recent works of science fiction I’ve read that have had a trade union member as a protagonist. Do you think science fiction has had—and continues to have—a certain obliviousness when it comes to questions of class?
CD: Yes, to some extent. But many SF stories have presented a class structure different from that we know today, an aristocracy, or an elite privileged in some novel way. Think of Brave New World, for example. That counts as awareness of class structure, and imagining new structures societies might have is manifestly a desirable part of the genre, and recognized to be.
GB: Also in “Critiques and Proposals”, you advance a set of proposals for how writers can escape stereotyping black or Jewish characters in their stories. One suggestion that I didn’t see in the essay is something that the genre grapples with now to a great extent: that it is the job of editors and publishers to actively seek out writers who come from backgrounds that—to quote the end of your essay—“have been discriminated against.” So, just to take your own example: one of the solutions to the stereotyping of black people in science fiction would be to ensure that black writers write for, and are published by, science fiction magazines. I was wondering why you didn’t moot that as a proposal for editors. Was it something that would have been dismissed out of hand at the time?
CD: No, I just didn’t think of it; I wish I had.
GB: In this 2013 interview with Josh Lukin, you discuss the centrality of the “resourceful protagonist” to science fiction, and the importance of “no hero” stories, in order to highlight that it is structures or institutions that are oppressive. I think this remains an issue with science fiction even today: the writer Saladin Ahmed tweeted about this recently, and I’ve flagged the point in a couple of reviews I’ve written on contemporary science fiction (that is otherwise quite good). Do you think the individualist bent of science fiction has detracted from an accurate identification of the systemic root of the problems that we face, and the need for collective action to overcome them?
CD: Thanks once again for clear expression of a major challenge for authors. But even if, like Saladin Ahmed, the author is conscious of it, there still may be a protagonist who feels lonely, who suffers from the lack of an effective community of fellow rebels.
GB: Let’s get to the stories themselves! One thing I am struck by when I read your stories is their range: in your science fiction, you’ve explored corporate culture, robots, post-apocalyptic societies, nuclear war, eugenics, and the arms race, First Contact, space opera, the world of work and labour, and so much more. Could you tell us a bit about how these themes reflected your own preoccupations at the time, and how you’d situate your work in the context of what your contemporaries in the science fiction community were writing then?
CD: One striking example of my writing responding to the preoccupations of the time is my responding to the threat of nuclear weapons. All of us in the science-fiction gang who learned of the Manhattan Project only in August 1945 felt at least a momentary joy of vindication: we had been saying this might happen, the general population didn’t know, and lo! we were in the right. But most of us soon realized, “Hey! this is a calamity, an atrocity” (and to think it was done in the name of the American people). Some of the authors sounded the alarm. I cite especially [Theodore] Sturgeon’s “Memorial”, my “The Nightmare”, and Sturgeon’s “Thunder and Roses”, but there were several others. We put it before our audience a rather large and international audience– that if your country is the target of nuclear attack, then it is up to you not to strike back but to do everything to RESTRAIN your country from striking back. We were right, but our message didn’t stick, in the USA or anywhere.
GB: Cooperation and language are two recurring themes in your work. They come together in your story, “To Share The World”, which is quite a wonderful First Contact tale: a species that human beings refer to as the Nibblies communicate through electric current, and their form of communication constructs a world that is by definition experienced and articulated in and through community. It put me in the mind of some of Samuel Delany’s work, and more recently, China Mieville’s Embassytown. How do you understand the role of language in shaping the world, and the role of science fiction in interrogating this relationship?
CD: Language may not shape the physical world, but it surely shapes the social world, and I don’t think I brought out in “Share Our World” or any of my other stories what range is imaginable in other intelligent species. Hey, to make this point clear, I’ll have to get back to the task of writing and dream up some more extraterrestrial alternatives! It’s worth thinking about. In the real world, I don’t think we’ll experience First Contact in the sense of Murray Leinster‘s SF, or mine, or Carl Sagan’s, but thinking about it is important for life in the real world because it helps enable us to handle the changes going on all the time in here-and-now social evolution.
HT:Gautam raised the question of the “resourceful protagonist” and the importance of “no hero” stories, and later came to the issue of cooporation, using as example the Nibblies in To Share the World which Gautam points out have a “shared world” that is in contrast with human beings. I just wanted to point out that to me there is a link between Chan’s interest in “no hero” stories and his creation of stories with multiple heroes with complex interconnections. My favorite of Chan’s stories, along with It Walks in Beauty and Letter to Ellen, is Hexamnion, with its coorperative multiple protagonist(s). I am not making a point here, except to bring together the two issues, and to say that I think Hexamnion deserves a mention along with the Nibblies, in talking about images of cooperation.
GB: Sticking with the theme of language, in your novelette, It Walks In Beauty, there is a point in the story when the protagonist, Max, resolves to think of and refer to Paula as “her” instead of “it”. Immediately thereafter, he catches himself wondering “how much difference would a pronoun make to – her?” “It Walks in Beauty” was published in 1958, and it’s quite extraordinary how these lines foreshadow an issue that would come to the fore many decades later; it’s only now that we are seeing mis-gendering being started to be taken somewhat seriously, and there’s still a long way to go. I wanted to ask what was in your mind when you made your protagonist think of correct pronouns as something important, as almost a revolutionary move.
CD: It is a fortuitous resemblance. I didn’t imagine the kind of gender-challenging we see now, though Ursula LeGuin and Samuel Delany did, impressively. I did fix on stereotyped sex roles, as they exist, and the damage they do to genuine human relations, and I’m proud of the acuity of my critique. “It Walks in Beauty” is near-future SF as opposed to imagined-world SF, as I intended to make clear by reference to an actual 1940s popular song. Exaggerated though the problems were in the story, they’re real problems, and I meant Paula’s optimism at the end—despite the failure of her attempted lesson—to stand for my own determination in 1954 (when I was writing) to do something to fix them. The editor, my friend Fred Pohl, thought the bitterness had to be let stand, and changed the ending. Without consulting me, yet! I told Judy Merril, and she agreed that my original ending was better. I insisted that subsequent reprinting of the story use the original faintly hopeful ending. I’m still determined to try to fix those problems. We’ve come a long way, baby … well, a little way, and there’s a long way to go.
HT: With regard to It Walks in Beauty, I preferred Fred Pohl’s ending; perhaps, as a woman, I identified with the bitterness of Paula watching the fellow prance off cluelessly. But I’m still glad that Chan, in 1954, the year of my birth, had determination to stick to his feminism even when it got hard and challenged his conceptions of femininity. I’m sure I benefited from that, growing up.
GB: Quite a few of your stories portray human beings failing—or refusing—to cooperate with each other, even in situations where it would be in their interests to do so, and sometimes with tragic consequences (and in “To Share the World”, the literal “shared world” of the Nibblies is placed in stark contrast with how human beings imagine the world). At times your work almost feels like a critique of the atomism that capitalism has brought us, an atomism that has perhaps become worse since the time you wrote these stories. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about these ideas of community, cooperation, and atomism in your work, and in science fiction more broadly?
CD: You’re quite right, Gautam, to relate the ideology of market economics to weakness of cooperative behaviour in capitalist society. Not talking about actual markets but about the terribly prevalent ideology of the inevitability of competition—an ideology now called neoliberalism, though there’s nothing neo about it. And you’re quite right that science fiction should bring more to the struggle to break out of it. Utopias are likely to be free of dog-eat-dog ruthlessness, but all kinds of SF could do more to address this.
GB: My personal favourite out of all your short stories is perhaps “The Aristocrat”, where a nuclear disaster seemingly divides people into “human” and “Folk”. The story is told from the perspective of a human who exercises what he believes is an enlightened-despotic rule over the Folk, in order to preserve civilization—until things start to go wrong. I read both It Walks in Beauty and The Aristocrat as being stories that interrogate, and undermine, the categories with which we order the world, and demonstrate, in a way, the futility of endeavours to exercise control over diverse and plural ways of being as well as the arrogance of those who think they can unilaterally shape the future. In particular, “The Aristocrat” pushes back against different forms of historical determinism. I was struck both by how this is at odds with institutional communist ideology, and also at odds with some of your contemporaries, such as Isaac Asimov, whose idea of psychohistory does depend on the world being knowable, and therefore subject to human control. Would you have any thoughts about this?
CD: Isaac Asimov has Hari Seldon’s knowledge of laws of societal development, and hence his ability to predict the future, break down due to one unpredictable event, the appearance of one individual, the Mule, with unique capacity to influence. Asimov came from the Marxist tradition, and was surely commenting on the great difficulty of understanding history well enough to predict it. I also come from the Marxist tradition. I believe that history can be understood, as the result of deterministic causal processes, but I also believe that the unpredictable events are everywhere. (Too bad we can not ask Asimov whether he agrees; he well might.) If this is a contradiction, I hope it is of the fruitful dialectical kind. In short, I believe that there is no bound on how well we can know the laws of history, but that our knowledge will always fall short of taking every small contingency into account, and that small changes can have large consequences, so that our predictive power, while improving, will always fall short. I call myself a radical contingentist. Have you read “The Next Thousand Years or So”, a lecture I gave here a few years ago? It accepts unpredictability without accepting unknowability, and attempts to justify this.
GB: Your other post-nuclear disaster story, “Last Year’s Grave Undug”, feels oddly prescient in many ways, especially when Pop says to his companions, “the US invaded itself.” I was reminded of the recent Capitol attacks, and the firmly tongue-in-cheek comments about how the US was finally serving itself a sliver of the taste of its own medicine. Many of the themes that you explore in that story—in particular, how, even in a ruined world, people will still cling tenaciously to the world-views that they have instinctively come to inhabit—feel very real today. In fact, “Last Year’s Grave Undug” could literally be written today and feel entirely contemporary, other than a few odd dated references. Did you anticipate, when you were writing that story, that six decades on, we’d still be exactly where we are now?
CD: No, “Last Year’s Grave Undug” is another warning story. Magnifying some present trends to show them more clearly. I’m glad we are not where that story depicts us! By the way, this is an instance of the difficulty even of understanding history, let alone predicting. As I also explained in my essay “The Next Thousand Years or So”, mentioned just now, I could not imagine in the 1950s that our society could survive unless we achieved nuclear disarmament. Indeed it still remains to be understood! We must try to solve that riddle, as part of our solving the grand riddles of history—at the same time as we try to steer the course away from nuclear catastrophe, which is still terribly threatening, but not inevitable.
GB: Professor Davis, thank you so much for your time, and thank you to Hannah as well. I hope you do get around to resuming writing those First Contact stories!
This interview first appeared in Strange Horizonsand has been republished with their permission. You can see more of their work here.
In a world experiencing a pandemic, ongoing economic recessions, political upheaval, and impending ecological collapse, what does it mean to think about utopia? Projects focused on outer space by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk seem to think that humanity can find its way out the hole it has dug for itself by founding utopian societies on other planets. Politicians have longed promised utopian programs of social renewal. As a researcher of utopia as a genre and a theory, the question I have in reading about such hopes is not can we achieve utopia on earth or in space—such questions are well beyond my capacity and training to answer. Instead, I’m interested in whether it is useful to think about utopia at all. Does imagining perfect worlds serve our present or our future, or do utopias simply set us up for disappointment and failure?
To think about the viability of utopian thought today, it is useful to return to utopia’s origins. The idea of a perfect place has existed for as long as humans have been thinking and writing. Works like Plato’s Republic and Ravidas’s “Begumpura” offer visions of worlds that improve upon the ones in which their authors lived. The term utopia, however, was not coined until the early sixteenth century by English humanist Thomas More. Formed by combining the Greek “ou” (no) with “topas” (place) and punning on “eu” (good), utopia etymologically means “a good place that is nowhere.” This should tell us something. Utopia, as it was originally conceived, was not understood as a real place. It was, by its very definition, a contradiction.
More’s Utopia (1516) itself is full of puns and paradoxes. Raphael Hythloday, who claims to have discovered an ideal island where people’s needs are met and all live in peace and harmony, seems honest enough in his narration. However, his name, Hythloday, means “speaker of nonsense” in Greek. This name itself calls into question the veracity of his narrative. The world that Hythloday describes is equally replete with contradiction: though it has a democratic government in which everyone is free, the island also has slaves and is quick to colonize other lands. Indeed, the birth of utopia as an early modern literary genre is closely tied to the beginnings of European colonization. The justifications for colonization used by Europeans eerily echo those of the Utopia when Hythloday says that many of the Utopians’ independent neighbors, who were “liberated by them from tyranny,” admired Utopian virtues so much that they “requested” magistrates from Utopia to come to their lands and govern them. Giving these colonizing impulses, this seemingly perfect island is not as idyllic as it seems.
The difference between dystopia and utopia is a matter of perspective. As students in my class last spring used to say, “whose utopia is it?” For the rulers of Utopia, the island’s life may have appeared equitable and democratic, but not so for its slaves. This same ambiguity pervades many other works in the genre. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella Herland (1915), for instance, depicts a feminist world run by women that also has racist undertones. Ursula K. LeGuin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973) dramatizes the contradiction inherent to utopia by portraying the city Omelas, whose prosperity depends on the misery of a child in the basement. The effort to achieve perfect harmony, it seems, often necessities homogenization, which, in turn, leads to the oppression and erasure of those who are different.
So where does this inevitable failure of the utopian leave us? Do we throw up our hands and forsake the hope that things might get better? To answer this question, we need first to reframe our notions of the utopian itself. I suggest (as do many scholars of utopia) that utopias were never meant to be read as templates or blueprints. To understand literary utopias or utopian political visions in this way is bound to lead us astray.
If we don’t see them as guides to the perfect life, what use might utopias have? Instead of understanding utopia as a perfect homogenous society, we might more usefully read it as a mode of cognitive estrangement. Utopia helps us view the world critically, producing wonder and disorientation, not as ends unto themselves but rather to unsettle the assumptions of the here-and-now with the suggestion that things could be different. Hence, Paul Ricouer aptly describes utopia as “a progressive counterblast to the essential conservatism of ideology.” If we understand utopia in this more capacious way—as a mechanism of transformation rather than as a perfect place—, we can more clearly see its value. Utopian visions, despite or even because of their flaws, promote reform in self-critical ways that foreground the tensions and contradictions inherent in reform itself.
A practical example of this type of utopian thinking is Chantal Mouffe’s notion of agonism, a philosophical outlook that emphasizes the importance of conflicting positions. Taking issue with John Rawl’s notion of liberal pluralism, Mouffe argues that in place of a morality that seeks to neutralize difference, we should understand politics as based in conflict between adversaries who may disagree but who respect each other. Agonism might seem a far cry from utopia, but I argue that it is a vital example of utopianism as it can be exercised today: this is a form of thought that unsettles what we take for granted—that the end goal of a liberal democracy should be agreement—and helps us see that there might be different ways of envisioning the political.
Mouffe’s political theory is one example of contemporary utopianism, but utopia does not need to be confined to the ‘real’ world. Fiction is a valuable and often unrecognized bridge between the utopian and the political. Whether a Netflix series that unsettles our assumptions about the future or a novel that gives glimpses of a world that could be different, narrative fiction offers pathways for critique, a mode as vital to our world as to More’s. It’s tempting as a literature professor to use this as a chance to make a case for the value of the humanities, but this is not so much my point, at least not here. Rather, fiction is one of many possible vehicles for a utopianism that charts lines of flight to other worlds of possibility. These worlds do not have to be on Mars but instead can consist of smaller acts of reimagining what we take for granted and efforts towards change with the understanding that perfection will never be possible.
Mouffe, Chantal. Agonistics: Thinking The World Politically. London: Verso Books, 2013.
Ricoeur, Paul. Lectures on Ideology and Utopia, ed. George H. Taylor. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.
Alexandra Verini is a professor of medieval literature at Ashoka University. Her research interests include medieval and early modern gender, religion and utopia. She is currently completing a book that explores utopian thought developed in women’s devotional communities.
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‘Any story you can come up with has already been written in the Mahabharata;’ by popular consensus, this is often heralded as the truth in India. The Mahabharata, with its intricacies in plot, characterisation, details, off-shoot narratives and adaptations, could easily be considered as the mother of fiction. Christopher Booker in The Seven BasicPlots argues that any given story is bound to fall within one of his seven major plot structures. If we were to consider this true and assume that the Mahabharata encompasses all major plotlines, then every single work written in the world today would simply be an adaptation or a rewriting of an existing story.
Why then do we bother writing, re-writing, adapting and recirculating existing stories? Are we simply enabling the production of another economy, where stories, like currency, exchange hands only to be drawn on or crumpled in one’s pocket before being handed to its next owner? This brings me to a theory that I have decided to call ‘the currency of fiction’.
What happens to the currency we use on an everyday basis? The notes either exchange hands till they are torn/worn, at which point they are replaced by crisp, new ones that everyone loves to get their hands on; or, they become old enough to be worth preserving for their collectable value. I see something similar happening in the economy of stories—the basic plot is the monetary value, and the currency or the stories are the means to access this value. New notes are the rebirth of these existing stories, in the form of adaptations or re-imaginations. The stories that gain age, wisdom and stand out in some sense, then become Classics, or collectables. Any subsequent note with significant resemblance or reproduction of thought of these Classics are the ones that are the most desirable, i.e., the ones with the most exchange-value.
Be it Enola Holmes, Maria Dahvana Headley’s feminist translation of the classic Beowulf, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Forest of Enchantments – the tale of Sita from the Indian epic Ramayana (the Sitayan), Kamila Shamsie’s novel adaptation of Greek tragedy Antigone into present-day Britain and Pakistan—HomeFire, or even a spin-off of Hindi soap Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai to the new Yeh RishteyHain Pyaar Ke with the stories of the children, and grandchildren (or was it great grandchildren?…I lose count) of the previous leads, recent times see no dearth of the return of our beloved characters.
Why? Why reimagine Juliet in 2020, as opposed to creating a new Desdemona or Laila or Heer? What about these particular characters makes us want to bring them to life again, albeit in a new socio-political scenario, or a reimagined world? I argue that it is our need for familiarity.
“Desi tadka with a fusion twist” | “Chai tea latte.”
What do you see common to both these ‘fusions’? I see the need for familiarity wrestle the desire to explore – the ‘certainty’ component of your personality in a heated debate with the ‘uncertainty’ percentage. Both these notions do just what an Enola Holmes does—brings you something you know that you like and that you trust is good, while adding some spice to it. The need to watch it, buy it, or consume it, is motivated by the same need to check your phone when a notification pops up with “Your friend ShortAttentionSpan has updated her profile,” you know the existing story is good, and you believe that if something new has been added to it, it ought to be good too.
Stories are thought to have been born as a form of relief or a doorway to a world beyond. Be it by way of murals on cave walls that showed horses racing through the clouds to greener grass, or by way of an ‘ajji’s’ (grandmother’s) stories to her grandchild of a crow placing rocks into a thin-necked vase in order to able to drink the water inside. All of these stories, while allowing for this momentary escape from reality, most definitely contain a component of the ‘real’ encompassed within themselves. The horses could be human beings rushing towards something and ignoring the metaphorical clouds around them; the crow could be ‘Sharma Ji’s beta’ (the ideal neighbour’s son, a prodigy who every Indian child is asked to be more like) who manages to do smart work and reap the best results.
What all of these stories do is play with the distance between you, and the world you are reading/watching/accessing. By making it appear sufficiently afar, the stories allow for a commentary on the real world, enabling you to access it without winning the assured eye-roll a moral lecture would otherwise merit.
During theatre club meetings, we would play a game called ‘You!’ 3 characters would take their place in the centre, surrounded by a circle consisting of the other participants, or the spectators in this case. They would proceed to enact a scene—a short one, only a few minutes long. After the first performance, they would enact it a second time; the spectators were then free to clap their hands, at that point the actors would freeze within the circle, point to one character, and yell, “you!” They would therein, take the place of said character and proceed with the scene in their stead, with one crucial change.
The aim of the game was to first understand how a single action contributes to the larger plot. The second aim was to help people understand what a good move, and a bad move, was —if the change elicited a story worse than the original, it was a bad move. And third, the real-life connotation—to be able to understand when and how your actions impact other people, and how you can think before doing something.
This game, while our little self-creation, is one that had been played on a much larger scale, a long time before us. Forum Theatre, a creation of Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal is motivated by similar goals, with the only difference being that the scene performed would be one of oppression, or societal harm, that could be averted through the tiniest of actions – one single action, that could contribute to, or help stop oppression.
In a similar manner, the economy of stories, in its distancing and temporary suspension of reality allows you to re-think the actions of a character, while also giving you the chance to step in with the whole, “why didn’t Rose simply move over and give Jack some space on the plank?” criticism. Stories provide us with an alternate space where we can think about the actions of characters, their motivations and aspirations, without directly realising that while so doing, we are also questioning and tugging at the loose ends of similar questions that arise around us on a daily basis. Stories thereby become powerful tools for critique, for questioning, for dialogue, and thus, for civic action.
In the economy of stories, as we recycle tales making a few crucial changes, we ‘adapt’ them to suit our present conditions. We play with the ‘distance’ of the story from its consumer, awarding the latter either the discomfort of reading about something too close to home, or the pleasure of an imaginary universe with a hidden resemblance to reality. We bring the reader/watcher/consumer to the right distance from our story in order to be able to comment on reality in the manner of our choosing. All of this while preserving the familiarity of existing characters, broad plot design, and the ambit of criticism that the root story fell under, in case of direct adaptations.
This ‘replaying of the same scene’, or ‘recycling of currency’, with a few crucial changes, shows the reader the light of the world of Forum Theatre, or ‘You!’ The potential to affect some real-world outcome; some civic change. The paranoia of ruling bodies about seditious fiction, crowd-exciting theatre, anti-establishment fictional narratives, suddenly makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? Imagine a large puzzle, with each piece being a currency note—the economy of stories produces a larger picture. The notes are connected by strings. That, if you sufficiently step back to look at, make up a compelling image. It is up to you to be able to decipher this image, make changes, provide new decisive shapes to the notes in order to elicit a different picture.
The economy of stories has immense power. As does art. Be it with a single currency note, the larger narrative, or the need for relief from reality, stories rule our world, as they should. The economy of stories is here to stay, and you are a part of it, either as a spectator or a motivated spect-actor. All you need to do is choose. And choose wisely, as Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, at the beginning of the Great War, a.k.a., the Mahabharata.
Varsha Ramachandran is currently an Editorial Associate at Agents of Ishq. She graduated from Ashoka University in 2018 with a degree in English Literature.
We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).
The term ‘controversy’ refers to a “public discussion and argument about something that many people strongly disagree about, think is bad or are shocked by.” But why is it relevant here? The makers and actors of the web series Tandav,released on Amazon Prime Video last month have found themselves apologizing to the public for allegedly “hurting religious sentiments.” But let me tell you, this cannot really be termed as a controversy. It is not the first time that the term has been used to emphasise on the reactions of a certain group towards a fiction released on OTT (Over-The-Top) platforms. Clearly, the Indian media loves the term when it comes to addressing the reasons behind a significant rise in moral policing. The question arises, what then qualifies them to be called a ‘controversy’? Not saying that the content of the series is perfect, it has its issues which need to be critiqued, but that isn’t the focus of this piece.
Why did Tandav self-censor?
FIRs against the series have been filed in states of Uttar Pradesh, Mumbai, Bihar, and Bengaluru so far, starting with BJP MLA Ram Kadam filing a police complaint in Mumbai and UP’s BJP MP Manoj Kotak writing to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to ban the series and apologise for “hurting sentiments.” At this point, one could ask – was there a “public discussion and argument” about it? Certainly not. Then whose “sentiments” are those? Leaders from a particular political party and the Police in these states filing FIRs at such a portrayal is a function of the religious group that they seem to align with. These sentiments are individualistic or concerned with a fragment of political leadership and could not be equated with that of the entire Hindu population of the country. However, it seems to have concerned the overall cast and crew of the show. The maker, Ali Abbas Zafar and several actors took to Twitter to unconditionally apologize and thanked the I&B Ministry for their guidance and support in the matter. In addition to this, they at once agreed to drop those sections of the show.
This kind of censorship commonly referred to as self-censorship by the makers of the show, even before a legal order was passed by concerned authorities to do so, could be perceived as resulting out of fear. This culture of fear and intolerance has been perpetuated by repeated threats issued by religious bodies such as the Karni Sena, a Rajput organisation that has continued to incite violence against several creations of the Hindi film industry. In this case, they have announced an award for Rs 1 crore to the one who would chop off the tongue of the makers, even when the cast and crew has repeatedly apologized online and self-censored. Noteworthy it is that the maker and lead male actors of the show, Saif Ali Khan and Mohd, Zeeshan Ayyub have Muslim identities. Considering the state of politics in the country under the ruling government with the recent Anti-CAA/NRC protests, it appears that religion has played a crucial role in majoritarian powers deciding what viewers can watch. UP Chief Minister, Adityanath’s media Chief Advisor’s tweet on the same, and FIRs by members of political parties against the maker reveal the religious biases of the party in question. It forcefully restrains dissemination of that particular thought which seems to act against their religious beliefs. These leaders’ take on the issue alongside the crew’s swift submission towards those claims are moralistic in nature. One could perceive their actions collectively to be sensitive to popular support, leaders in terms of political gains and crew in terms of monetary ones. These motives make Tandav “controversial.” What one requires is a public discussion regarding the moralistic standards upheld by these two sections of the society, the stances taken by them in lieu of their hidden motives, rather than controversialize the content and members associated with the show for their thoughts that led to their fiction.
The New Surveillance State
What’s missing here is a legal development, definitive to this case. What the Indian audience received as a legal outcome is the recent statement by Union Minister of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Prakash Javadekar, where he cites “a lot of complaints against some serials available on OTT platforms” and states that the Ministry will soon issue guidelines regarding them. This came after the Government brought films and audio-visual programmes over online platforms under the purview of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in November 2020. These guidelines would control the release of content on digital spaces, especially OTT platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar and more. This outright claim to control content on the web translates into control of a specific section of the internet by the Ministry. Considered to be in public interest, without involving the public in the conversation is quite ironic and diminishes the fundamental rights of the viewers, and furthers moral policing. The assumptions and predictions about the future of fiction on these platforms boils down to the question: who is deciding (quite literally) what we watch?
Fiction and Subversion of Imagination
“The web series ‘Tandav’ is a work of fiction and any resemblance to acts and persons and events are purely coincidental,” tweeted Ali Abbas Zafar, in the official statement by the cast and crew of Tandav. Fiction as a medium, is imaginary, that is, not based on true facts and/or events. And most Bollywood productions use this narrative art form to produce creative content for consumption by all sections of India’s population, complemented by its dissemination over OTT platforms. A consumer survey suggests that the most popular category of content watched in India on OTT platforms is movies and web shows. The form and platform together provides the creators with innate freedom to delve into issues that shape and reshape the society in diverse ways, borrow from society, and depict it through dynamic, intense metaphors through storylines. Although content circulated are subject to healthy critique from viewers and rightly so, the move to assert control over their content under the discretion of certain leaders is oppressive and disrespectful to the viewer’s right to access multimedia, especially online. This act of taking decisions on behalf of the viewers, undermining creative freedom of the producers and digital space of the OTT platforms, restrains freedom of the consumers to access specific content and their right to critique. Earlier, the understanding of human life through fiction released over streaming platforms were not burdened by the jurisdictions of the Centre. When one proceeds to censor an imaginative art form, it is not only controlling the produced content, but at the same time the imagination itself. The angry FIRs by leaders upon depiction of Hindu deities in a certain light in a work of fiction attempts to curb the initial thought that goes into the writing process. This conscious effort to monitor ideas and stories before they are propagated infantilizes the viewers’ agency, and leads to subversion of thought.
The ‘fictional’ aspect now makes creations vulnerable to the guidelines. The imagination, ideas challenging the mainstream social structures, complemented by statements made by binary political leaders towards them inculcates fear and perpetuates it within the system at the same time. With the recent statement by Prakash Javadekar, it becomes certain that it is not ‘we’ who will in the future determine what ‘we’ want to consume online, at least in a ‘democracy’ like India. Till then, happy viewing!
Ariba is a student of English and Media Studies at Ashoka University.
We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).