If I were to make a clear distinction between science fiction and fantasy, I would say science fiction is essentially about what is possible and fantasy is necessarily about the impossible. That’s what Ray Bradbury said anyway:
I have always understood science fiction to be mostly about the future. Even when it deals with the contemporary events, it is always dealing with the near-future. It is a genre that means a lot of different things to many different people, but at the end of the day, it deals with reality and the all the ways in which it could be different. Science fiction is about solving problems by using resources intelligently.
Fantasy on the other hand, is largely an escape from reality - what it offers is less of a solution and more of a “look over there - another world”. Granted, this other world may be a thinly disguised version of this one and it may have many of the same problems as this one. But generally speaking, fantasy is not solution-oriented. It deals in high ideals and moral imperatives. And when it doesn’t, it’s just plain old fun.
This is why I am repeatedly struck by a lack of Indian books (or even entertainment) dealing with the future of India. We have a lot of mythologically-inspired fantasy books that deal with our allegedly glorious past, but not many that paint a picture of what the future might be like. With the notable exception of Prayag Akbar’s Leila and a few others, I cannot think of many books on Indian bookshelves that concern themselves with the future of Indian civilisation. All our creative energies seem to be focused on the past.
We need some. And we need some that are more than Hollywood ideals transposed on Indian maps. We need stories about India’s future that are actually credible as such. The kind that is possible. Stories about a post-caste India, stories about Indians in space, stories about robots in Indian society and the functions they will serve, stories about dystopian Indias where society has been overthrown by — not robots — but perhaps by an oppressive caste system. Stories where India is resisting an invasion by — not hostile aliens from outer space — but perhaps the gods themselves.
I have nothing against “bringing mythology to modern Indians”. I have done it myself. But I feel there is a serious saturation happening in that market and it needs to be balanced out. I have written in the past about how some of the fundamental ideas underlying Western speculative fiction have to do with an imperialist and colonialist heritage. In much the same way, a lot of Indian speculative fiction has to do with our religious and cultural heritage. This has been happening so much that even I — a writer of comic books that draw from mythology as source material — have grown sick and tired of mythological retellings with gods and kings in them.
A recent video ad I saw on TV featured a robotic domestic help in an Indian household. Though it was simplistic, I stared at it as a wave of possible story ideas came and went. We have class and caste discrimination in our metropolitan cities, and yet, it hasn’t occurred to anyone that there is material here? Seriously!
I think I will explode if I hear about one more mythological retelling, one more “untold story”, one more “forgotten hero”. I am sick of it all and I want something different in the mainstream.