Rimi Chatterjee: Love and Knowledge and Yellow Karma

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The twenty-first century operates on the money-as-value system where one consumes or is consumed. People are nothing if they don’t contribute to the market. Global politics has turned into a complex calculus, with nationalism returning to pre WWII levels led by toxic, tiki-torch toting masculinity. The global village is sick and the globe is sicker, riddled with plastic trash, radioactive waste, and carbon with nowhere to go.

Robert Heinlein maintained that science fiction must put humans in the center of its stories. That axiom has held through the atomic age and has perhaps never been more important than now, a time, as Rimi Chatterjee describes, full of hanyos. Half man and half devil, the hanyo lives for himself and, more to the point, kills for himself, using up people and resources without regard for the future, for sustainable culture, for the inner life.

Rimi Chatterjee is an English professor and Indian SciFi writer, following in the tradition of Ursula K. Le Guin, C. J. Cherryh, and Joanna Russ. She has three published novels, Black Light, The City of Love, and Signal Red. Her novels fuse hard SF with twenty-first century social and economic perspectives. Her writing is rich with the promise of a technologically enhanced future and richer with a compassionate embrace of the human condition.

RT: Signal Red presents two themes that overlap in interesting ways. The first is India's competition with the West, especially the US. India must develop science and technology but this sometimes means that they have to cover the same ground that Western states crossed decades prior. You mention the moon landing and the development of nuclear weaponry, for example. India celebrates its gains in R&D and defense even as it is aware that it plays an ongoing and perhaps impossible game of catch up with economic superpowers that can afford to pump massive resources into their R&D budgets. The second overlapping theme is masculine privilege. Men rule women, even very intelligent and capable women, in various ways in Signal Red. The overlap here is that it feels that masculinity--masculine aggression, the desire to fight and prove one's strength and, more to the point, virility--is the reason that creating strategic defenses are needed at all. Do you see these two themes overlapping in American and Indian culture? What do we do with this weaponized masculinity hellbent on playing a Darwinian survival of the fittest game?

RC: Regarding your question about the themes, you are absolutely correct in essence. Of course, the book was written in 2003 and published in 2005, in a very different world scenario in which, however, global fascist networks were taking their first baby steps. Techwise I think the playing field is more even now, not that it matters much in the current world order. Society-wise it is now pretty obvious to everyone that toxic masculinity is the keystone and driving power of fascism/patriarchy/capitalism, since without controlling the reproductive choices of women and the terms of inheritance and reward you can't have races, castes and classes. I explore all this in detail in the series I'm creating now, called the Antisense Universe. I've published a sixteen page comic short in the Longform Anthology (Harper Collins 2018) called 'How Zigsa Found Her Way' which is a brief introduction to the world of AU.

RT: 'How Zigsa Found Her Way' presents a male female dichotomy with men destructing and consuming and women giving and healing. In 'Zigsa' the experience of toxic culture and education qua indoctrination explains the brokenness and inhumanity of the future society. But we don't really have to wait for the future to find hate, shaming, disrespect, wastefulness, and the wanton destruction of our environment. You place the 'Zigsa' story in a somewhat near-future of Tokyo but it doesn't take a great stretch of the imagination to graft this particular dystopia onto any first world society. Do you see 'Zigsa' as a climate crisis version of the 20th-century dystopia, not only examining the death of man but also participating in the Great Thunberg conversation about the death of the planet? Are these two items inextricably linked? Does a story like 'Zigsa' merely raise our awareness of problem issues or can these narratives bring us back from the brink of an increasingly ugly and unlivable future?

RC: I drew Zigsa in 2016 when there was neither Greta Thunberg nor President Trump. The publishers took two years to get the book out. The real novelty of the Antisense Universe is not the death of men and the planet but what happens afterwards. Bitch Wars, the first book in the series, details how our world implodes and in 2048 the world of the hanyos take over. The second book, which I am presently writing, called Survivarium, tells the story of how Zigsa and the other Survivors escape and build the survivarium. In order to do this, they have to invent a new type of society which rejects money and law and all of the toxic ideas of hanyo town and substitutes an entirely new way of organising and rewarding work, interacting with nature and with each other and fixing wrongs before the tears dry. To do this, they have to rid themselves of all the physical, moral and intellectual poisons of hanyo town through a ten stage process called the Hopscotch. Once they’ve done this, underground activists called rootkittens start recruiting people from the ruins of hanyo world and smuggling them out to the desert to build more survivariums. They propagate their philosophy of Antisense through a text called the Karma Sutra with which they infect the corporate servers. Prospective Survivors have to be given Puzzle One, the first chapter, and then Puzzles Two through Six will be revealed. I plan to publish the Karma Sutra as a parallel series to the novels when i eventually get a publisher to get around to reading the first book. As a handy introduction to Antisense, I’m sending you the pdf of Puzzle One.

RT: It's interesting that Zigsa came before Trump, but nationalism was already on the rise globally well before that. We can look back to the ousting of Mubarak in the Egyptian revolution of 2011, for instance. In terms of history, sci-fi, and revolution, Zigsa, with her Survivarium--founding a new society based on happiness and love--reminds me of Octavia Butler's Lauren Olamina, a character that responds to injustice and systemic racism by creating a new community that breaks established norms, forming heterodox social arrangements. Are you writing with a particular literary and/or historical tradition in mind? What has influenced the Antisense Universe?

RC: I think this particular iteration of fascistic takeover began in the late Seventies with Thatcher and Reagan (or possibly Nixon). The fascist-minded all over the world got really antsy after the youth of the western world revolted in the Sixties, and they've been working to shut us down ever since. But on a wider scale, this struggle has been going on for centuries, ever since the hanyos broke the world and rewrote everything in their image. I have huge respect for Octavia Butler but also frustration because she came so close to making sense of it all, found so many of the pieces, but that final step of putting it all together just did not come.

I have a similar response to Ursula Le Guin. I suppose I can claim them both as influences, along with Mary Shelley, Margaret Cavendish, James Tiptree Jr, Jane Gaskell, Joanna Russ, Margaret Atwood, C.J. Cherryh, Philip K. Dick, Iain M. Banks, Alan Moore and a whole bunch of others which it would bore you if I listed. At some level, everything we read influences us. But that can also be a trap, because it tempts us to repeat the errors of our predecessors and get totally fubar. Some months after I published Signal Red in 2005 (it was written in 2003) I was diagnosed with lymphoma. I was then writing The City of Love (Penguin 2007, now out of print) which is a historical fiction set in sixteenth century Bengal about the tantras and European first contact. I wrote the book while I was being treated (I deal with publisher-related anxiety by writing new books). When you stand at the gates of death you can't afford to lie to yourself about anything. At the lowest point of my treatment when I had completely lost my voice and couldn't eat, I had a revelation. That was when the Antisense Universe was born, and like Zigsa does in the comic I saw its architecture in a flash. But it then took me fifteen years to explain what I had seen, and I did it backwards: the first book I tried to write was Tira's Gift, which is now going to be number four in the series. It's set in 2886 and is about the society Zigsa founds, now mature and spanning the planet. Of course I couldn't write the damn thing: the whole first chapter was the clunkiest possible exposition no matter what I did to it. So I shelved it and worked on the architecture of the universe in the form of the Karma Sutra, which is a fictional book in the story like The Books of the Living are in Earthseed but is functionally a completely different kind of text: it's a manual for building a survivarium. While working on the Karma Sutra, I started to get flashes of the origin story of Antisense, and finally was able to connect up the timeline with the present day and start work on the first novel Bitch Wars, which is now written. In the meantime the real world caught up with me, almost as if the universe was reading over my shoulder (not a pleasant feeling). I'd write a scene and go to bed and the next day almost the exact same thing would be on the news. Horrors. Now of course everyone is writing cli-fi: the apocalypse has become boring everyday stuff. I'm having more fun writing the second book, Survivarium, where Zigsa finally appears as a character and I can get out of hanyo town and do some real world-building.

RT: You were born in the UK and emigrated to India later, right? Is that part of the reason that your influences are dominated by British and American writers? Do you identify at all with writers from India?

RC: You are correct, I came to India in 1979  just as Thatcher took the UK, a very narrow squeak. But I do have South Asian influences, specifically Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain, whose Sultana's Dream has been a huge influence. It was written in English and published in 1905 so it predates Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland by about seven years. I was immunosuppressed in 2005 so I couldn't attend any of the centenary celebrations, but I read and reread the text; it gave me so much hope. It's a little gem, barely twenty pages, in which community is threatened by war and the women say they will fight. at which the men say, but how will you all maintain purdah while you fight? So the women say, fine, you guys go sit in the women's quarters, problem solved. Then the women set up universities, do research, invent laser cannons and win the war. She has a wonderful dry tone as she tells the story: she recounts how the women repurpose their bangles as curtain rings because that's the best use for them. It's totally unlike Antisense, of course, but it had so much swag. Bitch Wars is full of feisty female characters who have a similarly dry take on hanyo town and its foibles. I also like Lila Majumdar's quirky fantasy. Bengali sci fi of the gilded age is pretty male-dominated (as in the US) but these two stand out.

RT: I read recently that William Gibson will look at the news, realize the book he's working on is already outdated, and then revise accordingly. One particularly arresting intervention was the destruction of the World Trade centers, which he decided to include in his book Pattern Recognition--published 2003, though he was writing it in 2001. Does the pace of our 24-hour news cycle with its grim depiction of a world headed to WWIII and continent wide fires ever cause you to revise your stories?

RC: Mostly it's the other way round: the universe treads on my heels. For instance a lot of the story of Bitch Wars is set in Malaysia in a fictional place called KL City (which has a slum called Climate Town where climate refugees or Climies live). So I was researching the 1MDB scandal for background, and the next day I open YouTube and Hasan Minhaj has done an episode of Patriot Act on Jho Low, Goldman Sachs and the whole sorry mess. I'm like: dude o_O. But there was one thing the universe did for me. In the beginning of the book, I needed a way to show the dynamics between LIla Bintam (one of the main characters) and her ex husband, and right about then Bolsonaro decided to burn the Amazon, which gave me the narrative hook I needed. In chapter 8 of Bitch Wars I put in a massive rally in KL City called the People Not Women March, and it's all women singing a song called Bitch Wars written by a twelve-year-old child-abuse victim and music blogger called Babelion, and guess what: six months later Chile does The Rapist is YOU. I suppose I should be flattered, but publishers (after having sat on the MS for said six months) tend to look askance and tell me not to copy current events so closely. Heh. There should be a Sci Fi version of Moore's Law to explain this.

RT: The tight relationship between SF and reality is as old as SF, isn't it? Apparently, the FBI investigated an SF writer in the '40s--Cleve Cartmill--who theorized that isotope separation could be the catalyst for a super weapon. But where do your ideas come from?

RC: Where do I get my ideas? Zigsa calls it unisense. It's kind of like Alan Moore's Immateria, or the Dreaming in Neil Gaiman's Sandman series. It's a place beyond matter where everything you imagine is real, for a given value of real. If you imagine a garden of wonders, that's what you find there. If you imagine the City of Love, you get to walk its streets. If all you can imagine is hanyo town, then you're a prisoner in your head as well as your body. Zigsa invents the Hopscotch to cleanse people's unisense when they come to her, so that they can become full Survivors and escape hanyo town completely.

Here's Puzzle Two, where she describes the Hopscotch. I am currently revising Puzzle Three, which describes karma, the system that replaces law and money in Antisense.
I think the tight relationship between SF and the world is because ultimately, at its best, SF is an exploration of metaphysics. Literary fiction accepts the 'world' as we see it as reality, but actually the 'world' is something we imagine into being every day when we wake up in the morning, all of us together in hanyo town (unfortunately). So literary fiction is a special case of science fiction, not the other way round; it's a science fiction where the world-building is severely restricted by convention. Take off those restrictions and sooner or later you get to change the dream. Just look at the effect that V for Vendetta has had on the world. That's real magic by a true magician.

RT: Yes, I was surprised when the hacker group Anonymous took on V's image. Your own work looks to similarly create positive change and you've advocated for women's rights on your campus in India. When did you discover your voice and what risks does human society have if we don't listen to your and other women's voices in SF?

RC: I wasn't surprised at all. I was like Alan Moore you lovely man. Open more doors for people to be VVVVV, which loosely translate as 'by the power of truth I, alive, have conquered the universe'. It's either that or go down, man. Because it's not just women's rights, it's all non-hanyo rights. In Bitch Wars there's a character called Bilal Bintam, Lila's son, who is born a hanyo, but he fights his fate and refuses to be like the others. If we don't support the Bilals of this world and tell them they are right and good and valid and worthy, then we are going down. In my classes, no matter what I am teaching, I try to explain to the young people that the system under which they are suffering exists to steal the sweetness of little boys and turn them into assholes, and they should none of them be complicit in it. This is difficult because many of the boys have already bought into it, because they've been hurt and silenced and discouraged from talking about their pain, which makes them feel entitled to pass it on. But it is necessary for patriarchy to give pain to boys and say, 'Pass it on, then you'll be a winner.' That's the core of the hanyo philosophy. Of course, it doesn't work. If you give others pain, your own is not reduced, and in the long run it gets worse, so then you either kick people harder and rage because it isn't working, or you figure it out and you kill the hanyo-in-the-head. And the rest of us better do everything we can to help you figure it out.

Of course, hanyos aren't in the game to figure it out: they want to win, and they don't listen because they've decided they and all the other hanyos are right and the rest of us are losers. As long as they think that, there's nothing the rest of us can do about them except turn our backs on them. Hanyos want us to think their pain (both the pain they suffer and the pain they give) is somehow more important that everyone else's, but that's not true. Pain is pain. If you try to build a metaphysics out of it, you're going to end up with a very broken universe.

So that's what happens in the Antisense world. The hanyos kill off all the other men, and proceed to rule all the women. But things go wrong. Giving people pain turns out not to make them do what you want: rather the opposite. It shows them the truth, because if hanyo town does not reward you, you have no reason to believe its lies. I sometimes tell my kids that privilege produces a kind of brain damage where you can't see the real world clearly: this makes some of them angry, but most of them nod. Privilege is when rich and powerful parents bribe you to become complicit in their world-breaking so you'll take on the mantle of guilt and keep the bent game going, just as the parents themselves were bribed and broken by their parents. But I think young people today are fed up. Even the privileged ones can't take the bullshit any more. They can see the whole world's going to hell, and a lot of them don't want to swallow the poisoned bait. The older generation's life-hating is just too naked these days.

Currently some friends of mine are under siege in their campus, and other friends of mine just got beaten up outside my university. Some more friends are sitting at a running protest singing songs; they've been there for days. Part of my country is under lockdown and no one knows what the hell is going on there. We only know that it's bad. I'm sitting here far away from it all writing stories, because I refuse to let the hanyos wrap me up in their pain. There is a way out of this. The artists and thinkers and storytellers know it, but they're in danger of being shouted down. Because we can't fight hanyo town: we can only escape it. And when we all escape it (including the children and plants and animals and air and water and soil and love and knowledge and karma), there'll be nothing left for the hanyos to loot and they will starve. And good riddance.

RT: Would you point to India's challenges as largely stemming from the legacy left by the British East India company and colonialism? Or is that just one part of a larger constellation of factors?

RC: Definitely part of a larger constellation, although the Europeans certainly complicated things, as they did everywhere they went. Colonialism was just as bad for the European poor as it was for people in the colonies, not just materially but also in terms of the spread of toxic ideologies: Brexit is one symptom of that. The Christian brand of hostility to Islam teamed up with disaffected Hindu elements, among the more orthodox of which there grew an envy for the neatness and organisation of the Church which led to the setup of similar collectivities like the RSS. Just as the various state-sponsored Churches stamped out heterodoxy in Christendom, the RSS and the Hindutva brigade seek to homogenise and police Hinduism in the name of Brahminical dominion. It’s no accident that so many of our elites were trained by Jesuits.  Before colonialism, Europeans were largely figures of fun to Asians: in 1509 Vasco da Gama shelled Calicut from the sea because ten years previously they’d laughed at him. After colonialism people sniggered in private while kowtowing in public. Now the west is falling apart, economically at least, and we look better compared to them than we did say thirty years ago, and it’s going to the heads of the boomers who remember the narrowness of the command economy and think shiny malls are progress. But the economy is in deep trouble, and a lot of this beating up young people that the government has suddenly acquired a taste for is intended to distract them from the fact that there are no jobs and a lot of broken promises.

RT: Your picture of India here and in portions of Signal Red is bleak, dystopian: I'm thinking of Putlibai, the mother whose existence feeding four young children by her own breast is cowlike. But you juxtapose abject poverty and animalistic human life with the development of future technology, from klystrons to skin grafts. I know I've already mentioned William Gibson once, but I think of his quote, "The future has arrived--it's just not evenly distributed yet." What does an even distribution look like for India? How do we get there?

RC: Erm, I know William Gibson is suppose to be the inventor of cyberpunk and all of that, but I've always found him a bit pompous. I prefer Neal Stephenson and Alastair Reynolds. Nothing's going to be 'evenly distributed' as long as the hanyos create artificial scarcity by hoarding and spoiling, then act as though scarcity is a feature of the universe. This is their logic for the systems of law and money that they use to control us, and it's based on the idea that the universe has given them permission to control all 'resources' including our minds and bodies and dole it out to their favourites. In a rare moment of honesty in Signal Red, Gopal says that he's like a battery hen laying eggs of technology for his masters. he has no choice about this because the world is set up to be his cage. And it's like that all over the world, not just in India; there are Putlibais on every street corner, but people just shake their heads and pity them, or despise them.

Karma is designed to avoid all the pitfalls of money and law. One of the problems with money is that it claims to be a standard and store of all value, but it has a very screwed-up idea of what value is.  If you think about all the hundreds of value-creating acts you do all day, and then calculate how many of them are recompensed with money, and for how much, you see that every hour you exist, the system is looting you. That's because money is kept artificially scarce, it has to be spent, that is separated from its creator, and it has no memory and no history. All of which make it a beautiful candidate for looting. In fact money is what makes theft possible. If you add a lot of value to the world, you might make a fortune, but if you then sign a bad contract or make a bad investment, you can become a pauper even though the value you pumped into the world is still out there and people are blessing your name all the time. You have been looted by the system even though there was no actual hanyo to rip you off. Also, if the people you help have no money, then even though you produced a pile of value, you get nothing to show for it. Karma gets around this by having ten colours, each of which represents a particular kind of value-creation with its own rules. For example, right now we are having a conversation, which is purple karma, and we push each other 'threads' to show that value has been created. We're also dealing with ideas right now, which attract yellow karma, and we're exploring mental worlds, which is indigo. Since you run a blog and teach, you would have deep karma in purple and yellow, as would I. Karma cannot be spent or transferred and it's tagged to the value-creating action that made it, so it's more like a rating or XP than money. Its purpose is to record value and influence future value-creation: when people see you have lots of purple and yellow, they come to you to learn, or they ask you to teach. Just having a lot of money doesn't tell anyone anything about you, other that you were able to strongarm people with money into giving you lots of it, or maybe you had rich parents.

RT: Money certainly has a stranglehold on value in the 21st century; I'm confident that most everyone eventually happens upon--and probably often revisits--the idle wish that they had been born with a trust fund. As a final question, what is the new decade going to be about for you and for Indian Science Fiction?

RC: Aha, but in the karma system, we're all born with trust funds. In fact the weaker and needier you are, the richer a source of karma you are, for people with skills can come and fill your needs and pull karma for it. Babies are a huge source of karma, for example. As for the next decade, well, if the fates permit I plan to finish my books, short stories and graphic projects, hopefully before the universe steals all my ideas. I'm really hoping I will also get at least some of them published, but I doubt if I'll be chucking the day job :/

I think we will see a lot of new SF coming out in India in the next few years. and we'll probably see more pan-Asian writer and fan networks coming up and more community-building. With any luck we're past the phase of endless retellings of the epics on steroids. Publishers are also less snooty about the genre than they were in 2005. I had an Antisense story out in the Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction last year, and the editors are at work on the second volume for which I've also contributed. Tarun Saint, who's one of the editors, has put together a bilingual Italian-English volume of original South Asian stories titled Avatar with Francesco Verso, in which I have a piece: that's out this month. These days the lines between SF and mainstream lit really only matter to the stuffier kind of scholar: I've worked in both genres and the differences are really only of degree rather than kind and audiences overlap too. In any case you can't write literary fiction these days without mentioning smart phones and the internet at the very least. However, from what I've seen it's still pretty difficult for South Asian writers to place stories in SF magazines in the West. Only the biggies allow online submission. We do have one SF magazine here in India: Salik Shah's Mithila Review. Mostly the genre is book-based here. We also have some established female writers: there's Manjula Padmanabhan, who's been writing since forever and who's also well known for her Suki graphic strips. There's Priya Sarukkai Chhabria in India and Vandana Singh in the US. We should soon be seeing a number of younger writers hitting the scene too.

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