This summer Mary Ellis Gibson, the Arthur Jeremiah Roberts Professor of Literature and chair of the English Department, published her latest book, Science Fiction in Colonial India, 1835–1905. [While the publication date is March, copies were not available in the U.S. until June.]
This collection of stories shows, for the first time, how science fiction writing developed in India years before the writings of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells in Europe. The five stories presented in this collection, in their cultural and political contexts, help form a new picture of English language writing in India and a new understanding of the connections among science fiction, modernity, and empire. Speculative fiction developed early in India in part because the intrinsic dysfunction and violence of colonialism encouraged writers there to project alternative futures, whether utopian or dystopic.
These stories, created by Indian and British writers, responded to the intellectual ferment and political instabilities of colonial India. They add an important dimension to our understanding of Victorian empire, science fiction, and speculative fictional narratives. They provide new examples of the imperial and the anti-imperial imaginations at work.
In Victorian India, technological change was necessarily understood through differences between the colonizer and the colonized. Since India was not a settler colony, new British-imposed forms of government could scarcely claim continuity with the past, and political and cultural dislocations gave rise to speculation about
wholly new forms of social organization. Creation and destruction, cultural innovation and colonial resistance gave rise to the plots and tropes of science fiction. In the stories collected in Science Fiction in Colonial India, 1835–1905,19-century Indian writers project successful and failed revolutions into a 20th-century future. British writers imagine, on the one hand, a catastrophic flood – thanks to the projected Panama Canal – and, on the other, a utopian future of peaceful multi-ethnic parliamentary government. And a Muslim writer designs a feminist utopia in which women practice science and men keep house.