Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Technology in Alan Dean Foster's Sagramanda

In Alan Dean Foster’s rollicking sci-fi novel Sagramanda, technology has permeated all but the most impoverished levels of the Indian subcontinent. But what makes Foster’s effort noteworthy is that the technology blends seamlessly with Indian life.

Clearly, Foster has spent time trying to understand the country at a subcutaneous level. First, he’s created a technical universe in which the gadgets and effects have been tailored to Indian life. Automatic brewers serve up tea on command. There are inventions that have evolved to deal with vast populations. Myraid models of automated
Marutis traverse the roads. Having taken note of India as a spiritual nation, Foster gives religion a central role to play in the defining of the technology. Sadhus are equipped with narcotic gizmos that induce hypnosis. Virtual 3D images silently enact scenes from epics like the Ramayana in lobbies and museums. A Sikh uses a communicator built into his kada.

Foster deliberately doesn’t offer a date and time in which is story takes place other than it is in the “near-future”. The sophistication of the sorroundings and the comfort with which people deal with them suggests at least a millennia or so in the future. Foster also gives his characters cosmopolitan names and writes somewhere in the style between second and third generation Indian writers. He uses Indian words copiously but translates only a handful of them (usually in the same flowing sentence). The reader is left to decipher the rest based on context.

All these efforts have paid off handsomely, transforming a formulaic thriller into a highly exotic read.

The wireframe of the plot is set in the titular city (although not specifically called out, it bears more than a striking resemblance to
Kolkata) and is as follows: an Indian scientist has absconded from his employers with a revolutionary piece of technology. His name is Taneer and although we are led to understand that the invention is his creation, he’s clearly in it for the money. His girlfriend is Depahli De, a dalit of consummate beauty and boldness. In his quest to sell the secret technology to the highest bidder, Taneer employs the services of Sanjay Ghosh, who runs a shop, dabbles in illegal trade and daydreams of making enough money to be able to send for his wife from the village. The corporation duped by Tanner - anxious to get its enormously expensive secret back - employs a professional problem-solver called Chalcedony Schneermann, half German, half Marathi, nicknamed Chal, who hates India, admires the West and is prone to dramatic violence. The latter character Foster clearly has a lot of fun with.

Those are the essential characters. Somewhat unfortunately, Foster doesn’t stop there. He introduces at least four more with an equal number of subplots. There is a French woman, Jena, who is hacking up people randomly as sacrifice to
Kali, there is a tiger on the prowl and hunting humans in a forest preserve, there is Keshu Jarnail Singh the cop who is investigating the serial killings effected by Jena and finally, Taneer’s father comes to Sagramanda in an effort to eradicate the shame caused to his Brahmin family by his son’s dalliance with a woman of the lowest caste. To his credit Foster ties up all the subplots neatly in the end but while the book runs its course, collectively they serve as distractions. Most notably, Sanjay and Chal are the only characters that feel fully fleshed out.

While Foster keeps moving things along at a fair clip, he doesn’t forget to pause and smell the flowers. His observations about India and how it would adapt to a new century of technology are insightful but also on occasion humorous. In this new age, there is room on the streets for beggars, cows, monkeys, riots and cannibals (who are referred to as Admikhana). It’s a canny way of rooting the story in present-day reality. Of course, Foster presents these so matter of factly without any note of defensiveness that they don't feel stereotypical or exploitative.

Footnote: Important business conversations in India still begin with a discussion of cricket. But other than two tangential mentions of Bollywood, this other Indian obsession is hardly given adequate time in the tome.

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