Imagining Futures Set in Othered Worlds

In pop-culture, the understanding of futuristic technology comes in terms of tall skyscrapers, flying cars floating with the help of blue flames and pink-tinted holograms flickering in and out of existence with a quick move of the hand. This seemingly neutral version of the future drawn in hues of white and blue has gained an impersonal, cosmopolitan and neutral connotation. It has also entered many imaginations, captured in everything from Young Adult dystopian novels like Divergent and The Hunger Games to short advertisements.

But this understanding of future is not as neutral as it seems. This future is often removed from our contemporary and historical realities. It is written still from a European gaze and not from an Asian vantage point. Even while including Asians, when appropriated uncritically, it could end-up whitewashing our imaginations of the future and render them rootless.

However, through a better understanding of modernity, it can be used to imagine brilliant worlds that counter the historical erasure of our identities. In this essay, I will list two books that take on the task of envisioning an alternative future and, through them, try to challenge our conception of future and modernity.

The European History of Futurism

Firstly, the idea of futurism comes from an art movement that originated in eighteenth century Italy. This movement rose with and in support of Fascism in Italy. It consisted of artworks that emphasized youth, dynamic movement, violence, technology and industrial advancements over all that is old and traditional.

This understanding of the future and the association of violence, technology and youth with futurism has carried over today. Though it originated in Europe, it has lost this association. Futurism is no longer seen as something European. It has been widely adapted across the world in different media from films to literature. It can especially be seen in Asian Futurism—for example, in Ghost in The Shell by Mamrou Oshii.

Works like this envision a fast-paced future packed with overwhelming technology and rampant consumerism to the point where it has been accepted as our idea of The Future. It has been assumed to be something that has no culture, no history and is something shared commonly. Through this assumption, a European vision of the future has gained ‘default’ status, leaving no space for alternative conceptions of the future. It has also created a near hierarchy of cultures where Eurocentric understandings take the front place and non-Western cultures are considered ‘less advanced’.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor challenges this notion in her work Binti, a Hugo and Nebula award winning novella published in 2015. This book isn’t about the future per se. Rather, it conceives modernity and an advanced society in terms of African culture. Nnedi Okorafor, in an interview stated, ‘to be African is to merge technology and magic’. She does exactly that in this book.

The book features Binti, a girl from the Himba ethnic group on earth who is the first of her people to study at an intergalactic university run mainly by the Khoush, an ethnicity written based on the Arabs.  This book has both elements that show advanced technology and magic. For instance, Binti owns and constructs an astrolabe that helps her make tough calculations and communicate with her family. Meanwhile, she also uses the ‘Otjize’ a clay made of ochre and butterfat used by the Himba people which is frowned upon by most around her but later has magical healing properties.

Okorafor is a Nigerian American writer who has had deep connections with Nigeria since childhood. As a result, besides challenging Eurocentrism, her stories are also multicultural and deal with discrimination, living in two different cultures and seeing the world through multiple perspectives. For example, in the novella, Binti has to mediate between her university and the Meduse, a jelly-fish-like people, and ask the university to return an artifact to the Meduse.

Nnedi Okorafor’s writing is a part of ‘African futurism’, a movement that emerged in African Diaspora. It explores the intersections of African culture and technology in worlds that have overcome the histories and presents of colonialism, racism and enslavement. These imaginations seek to build worlds from an African vantage point and to challenge Eurocentric notions of futurism and African culture.

Leila by Prayaag Akbar

In Leila, Prayaag Akbar imagines a dystopian India. This near-future dystopia builds a world with strict, communal divisions based on religion, caste and class. This novel implicitly challenges Eurocentrism by building a world from a purely Indian point of view. Much like in other dystopian novels, technology in this novel is used to surveil, to help sustain the societal hierarchies and exacerbates climate change by increasing the temperature so much that it drives people mad. However, just like Okorafor’s world, Akbar builds a world that transcends colonial preoccupations and builds on the Indian identity, social structures and culture.

Leila also defies the colonial ideas of Indian mysticism and exoticism. The world in Leila has little magic or spirituality. Instead, it has convoluted technology, a suffocating bureaucracy and a widening class divide sitting on a congested desert. In this sense, the world painted by Akbar is more akin to The Handmaid’s Tale than Binti. The book builds its world on a secular Indian identity instead of borrowing from its historical past or myths.

This book is not only a narrative in a purely Indian context, lifted off the Eurocentric conception of India and of the future. It also manages to tackle other issues. It is told from the point of view of Shalini, a middle-class Hindu woman who marries a Muslim man. As a result, her daughter, Leila, is taken from her while she is placed in a reformation camp. This shows Shalini’s lethargic middle-class mentality in the beginning and how that leads to her own downfall while also grappling with inter-religious marriages.

Both these books challenge Eurocentric understandings of the future by imagining worlds from uniquely African and Indian perspectives while also critically engaging with African diasporic and Indian issues.

Written by Swetha Siva

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