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17 June 2024

Stolen Hours and Other Curiosities by Manjula Padmanabhan

Stolen Hours and Other Curiosities: The Collected Science Fiction Stories
by Manjula Padmanabhan

Since I encountered her play Harvest in graduate school, I have been a fan of the Indian writer Manjula Padmanabhan. She's one of those writers who refuses to be confined, having published autobiographical memoir, children's novels, picture books, literary short stories, and—most interesting to me—science fiction. Her play Harvest is about residents of a country in the Global South selling their organs to rich foreigners, but I think more attention is due to her prose fiction, and I even published an article in the Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies about a pair of her short stories, "Gandhi-Toxin" (1997) and "2099" (1999).

Up until now, her sf stories have been scattered among her various short fiction collections (Hot Death, Cold Soup [1996], Kleptomania [2004], Three Virgins [2013]), mixed in with literary fiction, but last year, Hachette published a collection of all her sf work, plus a few new stories as well, and after discovering me on this blog, she generously reached out and offered me a copy of the collection.

Collection published: 2023
Contents published: 1984-2023
Acquired: May 2024
Read: June 2024

Padmanabhan is not the kind of writer one would ever categorize in "hard sf"; her approach as a writer is more to take an interesting sfnal idea and explore it in ways that are both playful and serious all at once. It's not too surprising to me that she doesn't seem to have made a big splash in the world of Anglophone sf fandom even in our modern era of more diverse writers; I feel like I am struggling to articulate it, but there's something that's a bit... silly in a way that isn't true of the diverse sf that comes out of the Tor.com/Uncanny sphere. I think those stories, even when they are very good and I like them, can feel a bit "worthy," but I think Padmanabhan is just doing what interests her.

The book contains twenty-six short stories, arranged in something approximating reverse publication order. This means that the book begins with stories that are new to me, and then transitions into the more familiar. The first story is "The Pain Merchant" (2021), about a world where pain has been eliminated, so people buy and sell pain illicitly. It is a bit hard to believe in one sense—no one in the future world seems to have thought through the implications of this advancement before it happened—but Padmabhan does what I like in sf, which is work out the second-level implications of a technology in a way that exposes something about human nature. Her story "Interface" (2018) is about our smart devices achieving some kind of intelligence: what would they think of us? (Coincidental shades of the Doctor Who episode "Dot and Bubble," actually, which I watched the night before writing this review.) Along similar but opposite lines, I enjoyed "Upgrade" (2020), about an older woman who gets an artificial house assistant.

Some of the stories are more fantastic than others, perhaps technically not sf, as Padmanabhan admits in her introduction, such as "The Empty Glass" (2023), about gods holding a conference in India. What keeps them in the sf orbit, for me anyway, is that she gives them a very grounded feeling. Sure, "The Empty Glass" features gods, but the story focuses on journalists trying to gain access to the conference. Or there's "A Government of India Undertaking" (1984), which is about reincarnation... but focuses on the arm of the Indian bureaucracy devoted to managing it. There's also "Freak" (2013), a funny story about a journalist investigating the story of a young woman who claims to have found the yeti. ("'Coz I'm God Emperor Dune! I'm gonna get the Nobel! I'm gonna be the POPE! I've captured the YETI!") I also really like "Feast" (2008), about a English vampire who at first thinks that India is a new venue with lots of unsuspecting victims but eventually discovers that the country's different belief systems have unexpected repercussions. Even her most fantastic premises are typically embedded in mundanity in a way that keeps them feeling "rational" and thus like sf, not fantasy. (Not that there's anything wrong with fantasy, I just personally prefer sf.)

Many of her sf stories take place in the future of India, but she's not confined by this. (I think there can be kind of restrictive pattern in postcolonial sf, where every story has to deal with the repercussions of colonialism or imperialism or globalism in some way.) I thought her story "A Cline's View" (2023) was a weird, disturbing take on what the mores of a genetically enhanced human with feline senses could contribute to the justice system. The title story, "Stolen Hours" (1996), is a weird story about a malevolent teenager on an asteroid colony, and one that is run through with both Padmanabhan's senses of whimsy and malevolence.

Of course it also contains all of my old favorites. "Gandhi-Toxin" is here (though under its original title of "Essence of Gandhi"), a really clever story about the unexpected difference between pacifism and passivity; global biotech companies attempt to weaponize Gandhi's genes to make the world easier to steamroll. So too is "2099," about a magazine editor who uses cryosleep to find out what the future will be like. (This also reverts to its original title, "India 2099," but also is a somewhat different text to the version contained in Kleptomania.*) I was happy to have a chance to reread "Sharing Air" (1984), about a future society where the atmosphere is so polluted everyone needs an individual supply of clean air—and thus sharing air becomes an act of decadence.

Like any collection, not every story is going to work for everyone. Probably because I am not from India, I found the Ramayana riffs, "Exile" (2013) and "The Other Woman" (2012), somewhat impenetrable, though the latter had some good jokes, and I am not sure what was happening in "The Annexe" (1996). But this is an interesting collection of stories from a unique talent, and I hope putting all of her sf into one place helps it reach a wider audience.

(Now to update my complete list of her short sf!)

* Not to go too deep into it, but Padmanabhan revised and expanded "2099," originally published in magazine called Outlook, when she collected it in Kleptomania. The version here seems to have started from the Outlook version but with different changes, so any alterations from the Kleptomania version aren't present here. I think it's the same as the version found in this 2016 issue of Weird Fiction Review.

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