Saturday, September 13, 2014

Report of the 14th Science Fiction Conference in Kochi, India

Popularizing Science Writing and Celebrating Science Fiction: A Report of the 14th Science Fiction Conference in Kochi, India .
(First appeared in Locus, Locus June 2014, VOL 72 NO 2)

M.H. Srinarahari 

Seated: N.D. Ramakrishnan, Dominic Alessio, C.G. Ramachandra Nair, A.P. Helen, T.P. Srinivasan, Rajashekharan Pillai, K.S. Purushothaman, Frank Roger,Krishnan Kutty, Arvind Mishra, M.H. Srinarahari.

The Indian Association for Science Fiction Studies (IASFS) organized the 14th science fiction conference in collaboration with the Department of English of St. Teresa’s College in Kochi, February14-16, 2014 at Kerala State in India. The state has the highest literacy in the country, with Malayalam as the spoken language. It is astonishing to note that no remarkable contribution has yet been made by Keralites to the SF genre. IASFS hoped to create a platform for the younger generation to be exposed to SF through the world conference. During the inaugural session, in his annual report on IASFS, General Secretary M.H. Srinarahari mentioned that in 1988 the magazine 2001 from New Delhi ran an interview conducted via satellite with Isaac Asimov in the US. The interview was

carried out by the team of Mukul Sharma (Editor, 2001 ), Chandan Mitra (coordinator), and The Times of India assistant editor Jug Suraiya. That interview marked the beginning of the second wave of the World Science Fiction movement in India. Exactly a decade later, the Indian Association for Science Fiction Studies was established, on January 2, not only Asimov’s birthday but also the centennial of the publication of Indian SF work ‘‘Agosh’’ by scientist Jagadishchandra Bose. IASFS promotes research work in the field of SF. It has organized 11 National conferences, at Chennai, Gandhigram, Pondicherry, Aurangabad, Bangalore, and Mysore.

The three world conferences were held consecutively at Coimbatore, Pune, and Kochi.After the traditional invocation, former Ambassador, vice-chairman, and executive head of Kerala State Higher Education Council T.P. Srinivasan lit a lamp symbolizing the inauguration of the conference. In his speech he imagined how scientific progress would progress in the next 50 years. He predicted highly sophisticated vehicles which would transport him to the venue of the conference without the present traffic jams, and indicated that on his arrival at the venue, his thoughts would have been transformed into a written speech in any desired language. He also foresaw that the massage between the real and the virtual worlds would be narrowed. The executive vice president and ex-officio principal secretary of Kerala State Council of Science & Technology Education Rajashekaran Pillai delivered the presidential address narrating how the state government programs have been successful in popularizing science writing.

In his keynote address, Dr. Ramachandran Nair not only tried to define SF but also went back to 500 BC, when an ancient Indian scripture Yoga Basista made attempts to introduce SF elements in his creations. He acknowledged the works of Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, Raymond Jones, John Christopher, Frederic Brown, John Wyndham, Robert Heinlein, Daniel Keyes, Tom Godwin, Clifford Simak, Fritz Leiber, Isaac Asimov, and Jayanth Narlikar, and spoke about the contribution of British and American SF writings in the growth of the genre. He drew the conclusion how SF has moved from possibility to plausibility. IASFS President Purushothaman highlighted the

gradual increase in the number of participants from the first conference until today. Malayalam science writer Krishnan Kutty and SF writer Arvind Mishra were honored on this occasion. Speaking on the occasion, Mishra appreciated the years of efforts of IASFS in bringing all the SF aspirants together in the country.Frank Roger, a leading SF writer from Belgium, said that he had attended a number of conferences in North America, but this was his first in India. Alessio Dominic, a history professor & dean of international programs from Richmond American International University in London, expressed his happiness in finding the present conference to be unique compared to others. Dr. Helen, the principal of the college, highlighted the achievements of the students during its 125 years of establishment. Dr. Celine welcomed the gathering, and Dr. Renuka gave the vote of thanks.

There were eight plenary sessions during the three-day conference. Professor Rangarajan spoke on ‘‘The Signs of Science Fiction and Nebulous Itineraries’’. In his speech he tried to trace the history of science from Homer’s Iliad. Dr. C.G. Ramachandra Nair, former chairman, of the Science, Technology, Environment committee and ex-officio Secretary to the government of Kerala and former dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Kerala spoke on ‘‘The Enchanting Worlds of Modern Science Fiction’’. Atanu Bhattacharya spoke on Bengali SF and explained how different the Indian atmosphere is in the development of SF compared to the West, as the English departments in Indian Universities are still skeptical in considering SF as a research topic. The luminaries of the Malayalam SF sessions were Professor Babu Joseph, Professor S. Shivadas,Professor V.P.N. Namboodiri, Dr. Ambatt Vijayakumar, G.S. Unnikrishnan, and P.N. Krishnankutty. Professor Thomas Mathew chaired the session.

G.S. Unnikrishnan, a leading science writer in Malayalam, spoke on ‘‘Writing Science for Children of the New Age’’. He expressed the utmost importance of creating future scientists and scientific enthusiasts during this super-scientific age. Science literature in our country has to become better equipped to meet this challenge. He observed that since the children are already exposed to the media, media should cater to their needs. Science writers should shift to new ways and styles of writing rather than sticking to the traditional Chandamama style of writing. Being a science writer, Unnikrishnan thinks one should be choosy in selecting topics, and should make use of broad-based ideas, primary sources, focusing on a particular point, re-organizing the ideas, enjoying the research, and writing about what is interesting for the author. Sharing his personal experience, he suggested that different methods of writing fiction and non-fiction matter. In his lengthy speech, the agricultural official suggested that for successful writing one has to think like a child, play with words, bring conversations, and try unusual formats like turning the straight narrative into a mystery, a quiz, show, a puzzle, or some other innovative mode. While doing so, one has to link new information to something kids already know. He suggested using storytelling techniques, making use of reliable sources, and knowing one’s own market. Lastly, Unnikrishnan suggested that good science books need to be translated from English into the Indian vernacular languages. He has observed that translated works on topics like DNA, satellites, immunology, light, and planet Earth are liked by children.

Another science writer, Malayalam Shivadas,initially established how effective fiction writing is and called for writers to shift their writing from the traditional form to one which inspires, imparts lofty feelings, induces great ideas, and uplifts human mind. Citing the attempts made by P.T. Bhaskara Panicker and N.V. Krishna Warrier, the pioneers in establishing Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad, he acknowledged the way they inspired authors to write for children. Speaking about the latest trends in science writing in the Malayalam language, Shivadas observed increases in eco-spirituality and ecological ethics in stories. Dominic Alessio presented a paper on ‘‘Re-thinking the History of Science Fiction, Space Exploration from a British Colonial Perspective: The Tale of New Zealand’s The Great Romance (1881)’’. The first volume accounts the 19th-century protagonist John Brenton Hope, who awakes after 193 years of deliberate chemical sleep and discovers a wonderful future society replete with mechanical marvels, immense orderly metropolises, and a beautiful young woman named Edith Weir. Though the second volume is a continuation of the journey, it describes the spaceship Star Climber

which helps colonize Venus. Alessio discovers that this is the first work in the history of science fiction which seriously deals with colonization and alien species in particular. Speaking on his ‘‘life in science fiction,’’ Frank Roger said that he got introduced to SF at age 14. At that time Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard were his favorite authors. The former made use of philosophy and the latter made a powerful impact on Frank with his poetic style, original treatment of ideas, and avoidance of traditional themes and formats. Being in Belgium, he learned Dutch, English, and French, and experimented with SF writing in different languages, resulting in the production of more than 500 SF short stories to date. He made notes on whatever he observed during his journeys and when meeting people, and a few have been used in short stories. His new book The Burning Woman is the result of an observations made when he was 17. His works are typically Belgian in nature, very international in scope, and have been translated into 40 languages.

Two SF books written in the English language were released during this event, one by a young writer and the other by a veteran SF writer. The Greek Mission (2013) by 14-year-old Venkatesh Vijay is published by Penguin India. The Blake brothers are archeologists who travel to the future, and to the God’s world. Bhoosnurmutt’s ‘The Art and Craft of SF/F Writing’ (2014), published by Vaibhavi Prakashana, deals with the ideas, format, and techniques of writing stories.

An interview with SF writers from different vernacular languages was arranged in one of the sessions. Dr. Arvind Mishra (Hindi), Venkatesh Vijay (English), Rajashekhar Bhoosnurmutt (Kannada), Nellai S. Muthu (Tamil), N.D. Ramakrishnan (Malayalam), Frank Roger, and Dr. Dominic Alessio took part in the session. The topics discussed included what is and what is not SF, forms of SF, and how each of the interviewees became SF writers.The session generated maximum interaction from the delegates and dignitaries. Srinarahari summarized and gave the concluding remarks.

James E. Gunn, founding director of the Center for Science Fiction Studies at Kansas University, was to be the conference’s Guest of Honor. Gunn said he accepted the invitation because he wanted to meet Srinarahari, who has been in constant touch with him for two decades, during his days as an Asimov scholar. Due to health reasons, Gunn could not attend, but recorded a speech that was played during the conference, in which he saluted the tremendous progress of the genre in India in a short span of time. One of the interesting aspects of SF is the way the development of the genre took shape in different countries. According to Gunn’s theory, the acceptance of science fiction is related to industrial revolution and the way it changes people’s lives.

The industrial revolution changed the course of civilization, and people’s attitudes toward existence. Writers recognized that the nature of existence was being changed by science and technology and responded with stories speculating about those changes. Mary Shelley from Britain, Edgar Allan Poe from the US, Jules Verne from France, and H.G. Wells from Great Britain all wrote stories contributing to the development of the genre. Gunn discussed the types of stories published from the pulp age, including detective, love, and weird fiction, and then to the non-pulp quality of stories published under the guidance of John W. Campbell and others.

He drew special attention to the turning point of Michael Moorcock’s editing and writing in Great Britain. The New Wave shifted the emphasis from the exploration of the outer world to the inner world. At the same time, novels shifted from magazine to book publication, and the number of books produced increased every year. Speaking about later movements, he explained in detail the cyberpunk movement pioneered by William Gibson. Praising the part played by present-day SF magazines, Gunn said the magazines still play a vital role in providing new ideas and introducing new authors. He mentioned a few magazines in particular, namely Hayakawa’s SF Magazine of Japan, China’s science Fiction World, and Britain’s Interzone. Throwing light on the digital revolution and online publications, Gunn observed that many authors were taking on multiple roles like editor and publisher, raising the question of how to maintain quality in a world where information is often freely accessible. Gunn asserted that SF gave him enough imagination, suspense, adventure, speculation, and unique ideas in his childhood to allow him write it, teach it, and write about it for the rest of his life. He hopes that SF will continue to entertain, instruct, and inspire further. Concluding his speech, Gunn quoted Fred Pohl’s remarks from a convention in Hungary where he said that SF has the ability to make us all brothers. He called SF the literature of the human species, and said we are its citizens and its custodians.

One hundred and five papers were presented during the conference. Dr. Srinarahari, Dr. Panneer Selvam, and every member of the faculty of English at St. Teresa’s College chaired the sessions. As movies are easily accessible over the net and are captivating for the young, papers presented on science fiction movies out numbered other forms. Films discussed include Avatar, Hancock, Ender’s Game Signs, War of the Worlds, Transformers, ET, I am Legend, Resident Evil Series, Quarantine Terminal, The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, Jurassic Park, Gravity, 12 Monkeys, The Last Man on Earth, Oblivion ,Solaris, Prometheus, The Rise of the Planet of Apes, Slither, Enthiran, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, and others.

Various literary theories and approaches were discussed about the following works: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Jules Verne’s20 ,000 Leagues under the Sea and Journey to the Centre of the Earth , Salman Rushdie’s Grimus , Robinson’s Red Mars , Dune: use Atreides by Kevin J Anderson & Brain Herbert, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World , Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Ian McEwan’s short stories, Isaac Asimov’s I Robot and Foundation series, William Gibson’s Neuromancer , Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon , Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash ,Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale , Robert Louis Stephenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh, Hadrian’s Eve’s Tomb , George Orwell’s 1984 ,H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine and The Invisible Man,Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and the works of Jayanth Narlikar, Niranjan Ghate, and Bal Phondke, as well as C. Radhakrishnan’s Ullil Ullathu . .

There were also papers on ‘‘Fictionalizing Science’’, ‘‘Science Fiction: Importance and Future’’, ‘‘Prophesying Life and Technology’’, ‘‘SF in Malayalam’’, ‘‘Hindi SF’’, ‘‘Kannada SF’’, ‘‘Marathi SF’’, ‘‘Science Fiction in Class room Teaching’’, ‘‘Science fiction in ancient Indian myth’’, ‘‘Artificial Intelligence’’, ‘‘Humanizing Robots’’, ‘‘ExtraTerrestrials’’, ‘‘Worlds of Imagination’’ and others.

Scholarly papers were presented by teachers and students of different faculties from Kerala, Tamilnadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttara Pradesh, Gujarath, Pondicherry, West Bengal gal, and Delhi. The common experience among the participants is that science fiction has no barriers of age, creed, race gender, qualification, experience, countries, borders, and others. Everyone could breathe and feel SF.

With permission from Shri M.H. Srinarahari.


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