Friday, February 6, 2009

More on First National Discussion on Science Fiction !

First Natioanl Discussion on Science Fiction and ' Banaras Document on Sf '
- Vishwa Mohan Tiwari (air marshal, retd)

[The aim of ' Banaras Document on Sf ' is mainly to put in writing the essence of discussions of five groups on subjects that were given to them in the session called 'Document Banaras'. The subjects were so chosen as to provide sufficient coverage necessary to develop a strategy for growth and popularization of science fiction (SF) in India. SF is an important and futuristic genre of literature. The purpose of discussions was to obtain a road map for the promotion of growth and popularization of SF in all forms in India. However a broad outline of entire proceedings of the Conference is also given, in brief, because that activity formed the basis of thinking about Document Banaras on sf 2008.]

A conference with the theme, 'National Discussion on ‘Science Fiction: Past Present and Future', the first of its kind, was held at Varanasi during 10th - 14th November 2008. National Council of Science and Technology Communication, (NCSTC, the sponsor) Government of India, New Delhi, Indian SF Writers Association, (ISFWA) Faizabad and Indian Association of SF studies (IASFS), Vellore, Tamil Nadu joined together to make this unique conference happen. It was a productive Conference in which various delegates from different parts of India participated warmly and whole heartedly.

The Conference was launched on 10th Nov. with a Press Conference. Dr Patairiya, Director NCSTC, Dr R.R.Upadhyaya, President, ISFWA and Dr Arvind Mishra, Convener of the Conference delineated the objectives of the National Discussion to the press persons. In the evening a Puppet performance, based, befittingly, on an SF story by Zeashan Haider Zaidy was staged by a Puppeteer from Lucknow, Arshad Umar. Then a short SF film 'First World' by Mark Lund was also screened. The climax of the day was celebration of the 'World Science Day’ with an interesting presentation entitled ‘Moon: Facts and Fictions' by Dr Nellai S. Muthu, a scientist from Chennai.

The Conference was formally inaugurated on 11th Nov. by Prof. SN Dubey, VC of JRH Chitrakoot University. Keynote address was delivered by Dr Y.H. Deshpande, a well known Marathi SF writer. Dr Patairiya Presided and Ms. Madhu Pant, and Mr.Hemant Kumar also expressed their views on the necessity of SF. Books by Harish Goyal, Dr. Ratnakar Bhelkar and Zeashan Haider Zaidy were released on the occasion . Dr RR Upadhyaya, President ISFWA proposed the vote of thanks.

The first technical session, 'Historical Perspectives of Indian SF', was chaired by Prof. Sagar Mal Gupta, and Dr Arvind Dubey, Dr Chandra Mohan Nautiyal, Dr Arul Aram presented their papers. The second technical session, 'Understanding of SF : A Cognitive Approach' was chaired by Ms.Madhu Pant, former Director Bal Bhawan, N. Delhi. Dr Thirumani. Mr.Harish Goyal, Mr VP Chaturvedi, Dr Amit Sarwal, Mr. Mehrdad Anaseri, Mr. Mohan, Mr. Kamalesh Shrivastava presented their papers. The third technical session 'Current Trends in SF' was chaired by Dr. Vibhawaree Deshpande. Ms. Anwesha Maity, Ms.Reema Sarwal, Zakir Ali Rajneesh, Dr. Bhelkar, Mr.Anil Kumar and Jai Prakash presented their papers. Two joint teams of Mr. M Venkateshan and Ms.M Srividya, and NS Sampath Kumar and S. Valliganthan presented papers on SF films. The fourth technical session, 'SF for Science Communication' was chaired by Mr Unnikrishnan Nair. The fifth technical session, ' The Latest Trends in SF', was chaired by Prof .R.D Shukla. Hemant Kumar, Zeashan Zaidi,Amit Kumar, Arshad Umar, Dr. Taralika Trivedi presented papers. In the last session, under the chairmanship of Dr RR Upadhyay, subtle qualities of SF stories were explained by Dr Upadhyaya. Dr Arvind Dubey, Harish Goyal, Vishnu Prasad Chaturvedi, Rajneesh, Amit Kumar also explained structure, communication and effectiveness of SF stories for various media. In all the technical sessions, questions - answers and the discussions were lively, positive and to the point.

A special and an important session was held to discuss various issues necessary for promoting the growth of Science Fiction in India. In this session AVM Tiwari was on the Chair and five experts from different fields were on the dais Viz.,Dr. Vibhawaree Deshpande, Ms.Madhu Pant, Prof. RD Shukla, and Prof SM Gupta, Mr Unnikrishnan Nair.

Aim of the special session : AVM Tiwari explained the aim of the session in brief. SF is an important genre of literature as we are living in the age of information revolution created by tremendous advances in science and technology. The advances are taking place at the speed of light and the society is hardly able to cope with the consequent changes, resulting in social discord, distortions and loss of orientation. It has always been the responsibility of litterateurs to protect the humane values which are under constant threat owing to negative traits like greed, extreme selfishness etc and dominance of inhuman technology. S&T forms vitally essential part of an SF story. However as the knowledge of S & T in India is limited resulting in a highly reduced readership in SF, it discourages the authors and publishers of SF.

Therefore the need for accelerating the growth of SF is paramount. The aim of this session is to draw a road map for promoting the growth and popularity of SF in India.

A definition of SF still needs to be clearly enunciated as there are many of them floating in the literature. Giving definitions about any concept dealing with human society is always a difficult, if not impossible task because life itself cannot be contained within the boundaries of definitions. Also there are ambiguities on the scope of SF which need to be clarified. Prof. SM Gupta took the lead and a group was spontaneously formed to assist him.

The second issue was promotion and popularisation of SF. Media's role is important in popularization. Noted SF writer and a scientist Dr Vibhaawaree Deshpande took the lead and another group was formed.

It was felt by the delegates that one of the reasons for SF being not popular is ignorance about it, its purpose, content and style. Is it possible to educate people on this subject? Ms.Madhu Pant took the lead and yet another group was formed to assist her.

It is considered by some that SF must deal with future. If literature can deal with past, present and future why not same is the case with SF also? A delegate mentioned that impact of science can be better grasped by taking the concepts of S&T into future. It was decided to form still one more group for this subject 'Futurism' in SF, and Mr. G.S. Unnikrishnan took the lead of this group.

AVM Tiwari proposed that SF being a new genre, it may need new rules of ethics. Some delegates immediately opposed the idea of restraining literature with ethical rules. They claimed that the freedom of a creative artist must not be restrained for it may interfere with his creativity. AVM Tiwari explained that liberty without responsibility is in fact a counter productive option.. Then, literary creativity itself needs a discipline of language, of style, of form and of social good. Fiction written only for entertainment does not make good literature. As already said the aim of literature is to keep the humanism alive. Therefore ethics must form part of SF also. Dr. RD Shukla was requested to put forth his views. He convincingly argued in favour of ethics as a dominant value for SF. He was chosen by the delegates as the leader of this another parallel group.

All the Groups were given time to deliberate and come out with written conclusions. A brief resume of various group discussions is given here.

1. The scope of SF is expanding, like the universe. It might have been dominated by adventure stories in the beginning, now it is exploring not only all the fields of science and technology it is also creatively predicting future possibilities in S&T, good or bad. At the same time in style it is experimenting with scientific interpretation of myths, cyber punk, space opera, science satire etc. SF has proved popular in films in the West. Apart from all the subjects that SF films have explored, serious philosophical subjects are being taken up in films like Matrix, and 'What the Bleep Do You Mean'.

SF's scope is same as that of literature i.e. ‘Life’; it is only the dominant role of S&T in its works that makes it different from standard literature. Prof Amit Goswami has added a new component to its role as, 'the critique, extension, revision, and conspiracy of revolution, all directed against static scientific paradigms.' Here Amit Goswami is bringing out a surprising fact that the tendency of human beings which is to get attached to ‘ideologies’ is present even among scientists and SF writers. In addition to creation of better understanding of modern world, and possibilities of future world, SF may also through the story, indirectly communicate science to its readers and may ignite interest in science, help to develop scientific temper in people, and help people improve the society with better use of science. SF looks sympathetically, intuitively, critically and intelligently at life. Thus SF may do all this, but SF is more than the sum of its parts, because it is literature which sees what even Sun cannot see, as a proverb in Hindi claims.

Having decided on the scope of SF, many definitions were discussed. Famous SF writer (the member of the trio of SF, I. Asimov, and Arthur C Clarke) Robert A.Heinlein has given a definition of SF : “Realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.." SF is more than speculation. SF has an aim, nobler than entertainment, to restore humanism in humans. SF uses speculation. SF does many things as described, but SF is more than the sum of its parts, because like literature it sees what even Sun cannot see, as a proverb in Hindi claims. SF looks realistically, imaginatively, critically, sympathetically and intelligently at life. This definition is not broad enough for our grand SF.

Another SF author, Theodore Sturgeon gave one definition, "A good science fiction story is a story about human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, that would not have happened at all without its science content.” A good practical sort of definition, though this seems to be somewhat vague about the role of science in SF.

Amit Goswami, a famous Theoretical Quantum Physicist, gave this definition, “Science Fiction is that class of fiction which contains the currents of change in science and society. It concerns itself with the critique, extension, revision, and conspiracy of revolution, all directed against static scientific paradigms. Its goal is to prompt a paradigm shift to a new view that will be more responsive and true to nature. This is a definition, which may be better applied to hard core SF.

It is important to know the relationship of fantasy with SF. Somebody suggested that SF is a beautiful balance between fantasy and facts. This sounds attractive but, as will be seen soon, it is not tenable. It was also suggested that fantasy cannot be ruled out from SF because any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic ( or fantasy). This being true, it does not mean that all fantasy would become sufficiently advanced technology. It means that some fantansies may becom part of SF, but most of them cannot. It is worthwhile to note Mr.Rod Serling's thought on SF which is, "Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science Fiction is the improbable made possible.” It does distinguish between SF and fantasy, an important distinction. Thus it rules out any definition of SF which is based on SF. Fantasy has its uses, but is different from SF, although the line dividing them may be thin. Speculative Fiction is obviously not SF for it does not obey the main principles of SF as explained.

Majority of the group then gave their definition of SF, “ SF deals with the impact of actual or imagined science upon society or individuals; it often involves speculation based on current or future science including technology.' Strictly speaking it is not a definition because it does not tell what SF is but what it deals with and what it involves with. Further in this definition neither impact of men on science, nor impact of men on men in a world made complex by S&T is included. After all the considerations made so far, another definition is proposed, “SF is a means of understanding and exploring the world through an interesting story in which S&T have a strong role, and, possibly, raise the awareness to change the world for a better place.”

2. Futurism in SF

Many delegates insisted that SF must be futuristic. In SF interaction with S&T and human beings is explored and dramatized. If one wants to show the impact of a scientific idea or technology which is not clear in the 'present' then one must go into the future to see its consequences. This may be a valid method of doing so, but it does not mean that 'Futurism' is essential for SF. Also to say that 'Futurism' in SF is not essential is neither to deny this method nor to deny that a futuristic SF appears to be more appealing and more useful. It is to say that exploration in SF is possible in present time as well. A case in point is the famous suggestion by Arthur C Clarke of a 'Geosynchronous Point' for communication satellites; it involved no reference to future. All the knowledge required to produce that wonderful idea was available to everybody, but the brilliant thought occurred to Clarke. Synchronic and futuristic are both useful in SF. Unlike in the normal literature anachronism has a place in SF, but with caution. Anachronism is mixing up of time periods in a narrative, like in 3000 AD, one cannot show the use of a present day mobile phone, unless someone might have discovered the mobile phone of today lying somewhere and then by suitably modifying it he can use it, to produce a dramatic effect. Further, as a word of caution, time travel is a fantasy, it is against all the known principles of science.

By using S&T, human tragedy - comedies, dystopia, utopia and realism etc., SF is in a better postion to explore the interactions of S&T and society, thereby making a people aware of strengths and weaknesses of S&T whilst at the same time narrating a wonderful SF story.

3. Education of SF.

Every member agreed on the need of education in SF. Literature is being taught from primary standards to post graduate levels. Govt. has to be approached for its inclusion in curriculum of students of all stages, just as standard literature is. Indeed SF should be treated as integral part of literature, and taught like it. This issue is more to do with literary institutions like Sahitya Academies etc. Therefore they need to be approached to accept SF as integral part of literature. Teaching of SF should not mean teaching of science. Opposition to this effort is coming mainly for three reasons. First is resistance to change and second is clash of interests. Curriculum- time being limited, some aspects and works etc of literature would have to be replaced by some SF works. Third reason is lack of high class SF literature in Indian languages. Despite this resistance, efforts have to be made. As the introduction of education of SF is a difficult project, the task should be taken up by a special cell.

4. Role of Ethics : Whilst agreeing that the creative writers or poets cannot be dictated by any written code of conduct which may impinge on their creative freedom, necessity of responsibility and discipline for any creative work must also be realized. 'Humane Values' must be preserved in the SF works that are created. The SF work must not be didactic, as in any good literature, but the suitable message ought to be there submerged in the created work. Ethics need not be confused with religion, although ethics is generally derived from religious scriptures. It is humane behaviour that is recommended by ethics that is desirable in SF. Humane values such as love, truth, forgiveness, control on self, non stealth, non – inflicting pain or misery on innocents, tolerance of different view points, kindness, cleanliness, fortitude in adversity, wisdom etc. are to be encouraged.

Without Humane Values, SF or any fiction may be pure entertainment, but it would neither be responsible literature nor contributing to progress of a society without various types of conflicts e.g. conflicts with other man, with nature, with oneself.

5. Promotion of SF and its Popularization.

To be in forefront in S&T is vitally important for a nation today if it desires to remain free from technological and economical domination by advanced countries. Promotion of growth of SF means growth of S&T. Poor science – literacy no doubt discourages people to read SF. Addiction to pop soaps on TV on the one hand, and no SF education and lack of interest in science among the public and lack of availability of good SF in Indian languages on the other hand are obstacles in growth of SF and popularity of SF in India. Although it must be admitted that availability of good SF and popularity of SF may be in a catch 22 syndrome.

Spread of SF literature would help our society in rationally accepting the influence of S&T, which otherwise has a tendency to dehumanize the thinking of the people. By using dystopia, utopia and realism, SF is in a better position to analyse interactions of S&T and society, thereby making people aware of strengths and weaknesses of S&T. However the problem of popularization presents a disappointing scenario. Visual and print media, the most powerful arms of mass contact, just do not show interest in giving coverage to S&T, they having sold themselves to lucre. Internet is a good medium for spread of S&T and SF, within its limited reach today. Apart from a change in media's attitude, SF has to improve itself so that media accepts to publish their work.

SF is in a pioneering state, and obstacles in its path are many, SF writers who love this genre have to work enthusiastically and selflessly for promotion and growth of SF; other agencies also need to be urged to be positively responsive in this field. Having studied the problem of promotion of growth and popularization of SF, it is essential that a separate cell for this task be set up. As Govt and academia both are involved, a PG&PSF Cell ( Promotion of Growth and Popularization of SF Cell) may be set up. First with the Govt. e.g. preferably with NCSTC and its branches at some suitable universities. Volunteer organizations need to work so that multi agencies work in this field and may help each other and balance each other's shortcomings.

Here are important suggestions:

PG&PSF Cell should

1. generally work to achieve growth and popularization of SF,

2. Urge Govt. and private educational institutions to improve the standard of science teaching and science laboratories in schools. While teaching science aim also must be to impart capability of scientific thinking. Students must understand the concepts and not learn them by rote.

3. Work towards introduction of SF as part of literature in Education system, and acceptance by Sahitya Academies of SF as part of literature. All activities that are performed for literature should be applicable to SF as well.

4. Assist NCSTC in meeting their SF objectives, including organization of National and International Conferences on SF.

5. Award Fellowships for research on Inidan SF.

6. Offer Honours and Awards for quality SF. Other SF institutions may be urged to do the same.

7. Should approach jointly with SF clubs etc. Govt and Prasar Bharati to start a 'Science Channel' each on Radio and TV. Which of course would include SF.? They should help in promoting broadcasts and telecasts of SF activities and works.

8. Conduct workshops on SF for new SF writers and students.

9. , in Universities, work with University administration to incorporate SF as a part educational curriculum and preparation of syllabi.

10. Promote translation of SF works preferably among Indian languages, and also into and from English.

11. Organize competitions in SF writing.

12. Urge Government and public libraries to buy SF books.

General considerations:

Clubs - 'SF Buff' - could be established by SF lovers where SF reading and discussion could take place, like poetry clubs do.

Some film makers could be approached by SF clubs to produce SF films.

SF lovers should open 'Science' or 'SF Blogs' and/or 'Web sites'.

Scientists should be portrayed in SF works as humane and inventive persons who are busy solving problems faced by society, so that they can become a role model for people.

If India has to be self respecting and an advanced country then Science ought to be taught in Indian languages, and SF must be written in Indian languages. Cross translation of SF works among regional languages must be encouraged.

Growth of SF in India is sine qua non for progress in S&T and also for a rational society not falling prey to its dehumanizing effect. Although SF deals with Science, so to say, it was an emotive subject, for it is a literature genre as well. About 75 to 100 delegates took active part in the deliberations, sometimes heated, but always giving more light than smoke. It is hoped that 'Document Banaras' will carry the gems of knowledge condensed in these discussions to various agencies who can help in promotion of growth and popularization of SF and to various SF lovers, especially the creators of SF.