03 September 2015

Review: Escape by Manjula Padmanabhan

Trade paperback, 419 pages
Published 2008

Acquired February 2015
Read May 2015
Escape by Manjula Padmanabhan

I read this as part of my ongoing investigation into Indian speculative fiction; Padmanabhan is one of a few Indian authors currently writing sf in English. Escape is set in a sort of Handmaid's Taleesque dystopic future India-- except where an evil General has carried out a near-complete femicide. One of the book's two protagonists is one of the last (maybe the last) woman left alive, but she's been kept on drugs and in ignorance, so she doesn't know she's different from the uncles who shelter her. Only the older she gets, the more rumors creep out, and the uncles realize they need to get her out of India, so the youngest of them accompanies her on a desperate trip.

What follows is a very bleak travelogue of sorts. Padmanabhan's future India is horrifying, but also fascinating. Without women, clones are used for reproduction-- but also clones with limited mental acuity ("drones") are created for the purposes of labor. And society has to adapt and to change to deal with the lack of women; there are some very twisted men as a result, men who cannot indulge the desires they have. The book is interspersed with maxims from the General's books, with titles like A Manual for Bold Soldiers, The Vermin Tribe: An Analysis (the "vermin tribe" is what they call women), and The Generals: A Plural Life. As that last title indicates, the General is actual more than one person; he too has cloned himself again and again, his intelligence almost functioning like a program in the cloud. Like future India, the General is both horrifying and fascinating, and I really enjoyed the interjections into the narrative of an interview with home done by an outside newscaster.

At the same time, our poor young protagonist has to adapt to a horrifying world in which she is literally the only one of her kind. Meiji's journey gets pretty intense at times, but is there's any complaint to lob at this book, it's that she occasionally disappears from it; much more of it is about Youngest protecting Meiji than it is about Meiji herself. What kind of sacrifices-- both physical and moral-- will Youngest make to protect his niece? There's a lot of commentary embedded in here, about how society treats women, how society treats other social classes, about the disposability of human life, and like the best sf it's as much a mirror of today as a potential future. Some of humanity's worst desires get brought to the surface, and the book has a very bleak take on sex throughout, perhaps unsurprisingly. It's an engrossing read, and I hope the sequel that the ending indicates ought to happen really does come to pass, though seven years later, I have my doubts.

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