Science Fiction and Fantasy | An Indian Experience

"Tales of the Future: Ten Best Sci-Fi Stories by Jayant Vishnu Narlikar" A Review by Dr. M H Srinarahari |
Issue 21

“Tales of the Future: Ten Best Sci-Fi Stories by Jayant Vishnu Narlikar” A Review by Dr. M H Srinarahari

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Most scientists now believe that the universe came into being with a bang, as described in the “The Big Bang” theory. There is, however, one Indian astrophysicist, Jayant Vishnu Narlikar, who does not believe that a firm case has yet been made for this theory. In fact, at one time he was a firm believer in the rival “Steady State” theory.

According to this theory the universe remains the same at all times, past, present or future. Matter in the form of stars, galaxies and other bodies is uniformly disturbed all over the universe. New matter is created to fill any gap that arises because of the motion of a galaxy or other bodies.

Apart from his work on the “Steady State” theory, Narlikar worked in collaboration with his teacher, Fred Hoyle, on a new theory of gravitation, when he was hardly 26. The theory was then considered to be a breakthrough as significant as Einstein’s theory of relativity. In fact, the world has hailed him as India’s Einstein.

Narlikar was born on July 19, 1938, at Kolhapur, Maharashtra, but was brought up in Varanasi in the house of his uncle, a mathematician.  After obtaining M.Sc. and Ph.D. from Banaras Hindu University, Narlikar went to Cambridge to carry on research under the able guidance of Fred Hoyle at King’s College. For his research work in astronomy he received several awards, medals and scholarships. Narlikar returned home in 1972 and since then he was been Professor of Astrophysics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research where he worked with his disciples on black holes and tachyons. Narlikar has worked hard to make science popular.

It was the Second International Conference for Science Communicators held at Mumbai in 2003. The occasion also coincided with felicitating Narlikar who was retiring from the Directorship of Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune. In the welcome note the Chairman of NCSC A. P. Deshponde rightly introduces Prof. Narlikar:

Much has been said about Prof.Narlikar. He is a multifaceted person, a researcher, teacher, science communicator and a guide to amateur astronomers and planetaria–Yet there is one aspect that is being left out here and that is science fiction–

In one of the Indian National Newspapers, in an article entitled “Behind the Veil of Cosmology” Dr. Narlikar gives an analogy to explain a scientific theory: In my childhood Hindi storybook I read the episode of a motorcyclist going through a village in remote area at night. No one saw the rider, but his wheel-marks on the dusty track were visible. What did those marks represent? The villagers had never seen a motorcycle before and so were completely foxed by the marks.

They approached the only wise man in the village who had answers to all questions. Having pondered over the query and inspected the marks that worthy replied: “These are the marks left by a rolling milestone pulled by a cat”.

The explanation thus serves as a base to trace the deep rooted scientific bent of mind he has and demonstrates how in all through his career he has served as the best teacher. Further, it also links the ideology of the professor with his writings in the form of science and science fiction. In 1996 while explaining me the way in which MVP was working, he disclosed that even though he had used a pseudonym, his story won the first prize in one of the annual story writing competitions organized by Marathi Vidnyan Parishad.  A vast expanse of his original thoughts could be had by going through his best sellers namely, Seven Wonders of the CosmosFrom Black Clouds to Black HolesThe Scientific EdgeThe Primeval UniverseViolent Phenomena in the Universe and a Science Fiction novel The Return of Vaman. Very recently, Witness Books has brought out his anthology of Science Fiction stories entitled Tales of the Future: Ten Best Sci-Fi Stories, which will be briefly analyzed here.

The anthology’s first story “The Ice Age Cometh” had appeared as the first story in It Happened Tomorrow (1993; rpt1995) edited by Bal Phondke. It seems that Arthur C Clarke’s “History Lesson” published first in Startling Stories (1949) has created a powerful impact on Narlikar as the theme and narration run parallel to each other. Upinder Mehan in “The Domestication of Technology in Indian Science Fiction Short Stories” published in Foundation (Autumn, 1998) sums up the story:

“The Ice Age Cometh” by Jayanth Narlikar is set in the near future. Volcanic eruptions combine with air pollution to hasten the ice age and Bombay is covered with snow. In the fist post ice-age winter most of the technologically complacent countries like Japan, Canada, the USA, and Europe are unprepared for a five meter snowfall, and most of their populations perish. An Indian scientist, Vasant Chitnis who was scorned by the scientific establishment for his unpopular theories concerning the imminent ice age is now courted. An American scientist, who had disdained Vasant’s ideas, comes begging for a solution. Vasant’s reply is to launch the “Invasion of Indra”. Vasant explains the name of his project through mythology: “Indra is the Lord of the Heavens whose abode is up above where all the trouble lies”. The “invasion” call for the release of metallic bits into the atmosphere as well as the detonation of all those atomic bombs stored for destructive use in order to provide the necessary energy. The effort is successful and the hope is that despite the destruction of half the earth’s population the countries will continue to work together.

In a dialogical aside, the author Vasant has ordered the rocket to be fired as soon as it is ready because he “was never one to wait for an astrologically auspicious moment for beginning any project”.  The aside is ironic because even though Vasant does not mix astronomy and astrology, he still refers (perhaps poetically) to mythological figures – but then again that is an old tradition in the space sciences, i.e., to map the stars as though they were the heavens.

Further, Mehan comments, that “the author feels the need to speak to the reader who may himself/ herself be like many scientists who do mix theology and science. The split between a public self and a private self one is often mapped in post-colonial contexts as a Western/Eastern dichotomy, but it is a facile generalization. There is little difference between a scientist such as the one Narlikar ridicules and the Western scientist who can reconcile secular evolutionary theory with the Bible story of Creation. A proponent of the multi–layered conception of the self such as Radhakrishnan explains cultural hybridity by positing an outer self and a core self brought into compartmentalized being by historical forces:

Forced by colonialism to negotiate with Western blueprints of reason, progress and enlightenment, the nationalist subject straddles two regions or spaces, internalizing Western epistemological modes at the outer or purely pragmatic level, and at the inner level maintaining a traditional identity that will not be influenced by the merely pragmatic nature of the outward changes.

The mistaken assumption underlying the above quotation is that the scientist regards himself, qua scientist, as purely a thin overlay of Western scientism which is to be discarded when the workday is over and ignored when personal decisions are to be made. The major flaw in such reasoning is that it assumes the transcendental signifier, the Western scientist, is rational in all his behaviors, thoughts, and beliefs.

Science and Religion again comes at loggerheads in another story “The Comet”. On the one hand, the appearance of a comet is a boon for an astronomer as the phenomenon hardly occurs once in lifetime. On the other hand, it is a curse for others, particularly for those who have a staunch belief in beliefs. But the author has posed a problem even for the scientists that ‘the comet’ might hit the earth and the scientific predictions indicate that the doom’s day is not far.  Duttada and his wife Indrani Debi represent two such classes of people. For her it was the ‘same old stars’. But for him the sky appeared differently at different times. In his view, the pole star was also changing its position in the vast expanse of the Universe. Duttada had an ambition of finding a comet and aspired to name it ‘Comet Dutta’ as in the case of ‘Halley’s comet’. With persistent efforts, at last one night at 2 AM, using 8.64 telescope named Dibya Chakshu – Divine Eye, he could locate it. After a week’s time its existence was confirmed and Duttada’s ambition was fulfilled as it was christened, as he had desired.

Science fiction is the study of the impact of Science & Technology on society. Duttada lived in a society where “…persons who did not know what a comet was and who mistook astronomy for astrology made long speeches.” Indrani Debi had commented that “Comet bring ill-luck and I wish a good man like you were not associated with the discovery of one.” He wondered several times why people take the appearance of a comet as a bad omen even though it was composed of inert gases; caught in the web of gravitational forces and hence revolve around the Sun.  He had stated that the comet would pass through Earth without causing any harm. Duttada’s statement was not entirely going to be true. The scene shifts to England.  Fact and fiction meet here for the first time in Narlikar’s work as the author has vividly described the environment of the Kings College, Cambridge where he had once been a student. It was discovered that there were very remote chances of escape of the comet being collided with the Earth. Duttada was invited to take part in a conference in England. Could science change nature! It was planned to send a payload of atomic explosives to encounter with the comet and change its track to avoid the collision. Duttada was thrilled to note the success of the mission ‘Project Light Brigade’. But he was sorry to note at the end that his wife an embodiment of superstition had believed like others that the comet had not collided with Earth as an outcome of the yagna she was carrying out. Manoj Dutta also feels sorry for his youngest grandson Khoka who was forced to perform the yagna blindly not even understanding a single mantra during that time.

Even though, “The Rare Idol of Ganesha” appears as a work of fantasy, it is a science fiction story. The test for SF story is that the story should crumble as soon as the science idea is taken out. In this story, a scientist succeeds in experimenting with the idea of making up replicas of the originals but fails to provide the proof to the world at the end. First, the narrator was invited to watch the performance of a cricket player Pramod Rangnekar who was his classmate at Cambridge. Pramod, who was to be dropped for that match, had the urge to show his power. It was a surprise to everyone to witness such a classic match in which Pramod broke the earlier record by taking 20 wickets in that test match. The only remarkable change was that he bowled left-handed which he did not try during his career. Immediately after the game, he was absconding. Later he was found in a police station where he confessed that he did not remember any thing about the match. Ajith Singh the narrator further explains his meeting with his Cambridge classmate John Armstrong. Ajith agrees to join for dinner but insists that permission may kindly be accorded to eat with his bare hands. When the dinner was over, Armstrong’s seven year old son Ken brought a book to Ajith pointing that even though he had received a book as a last year gift from him he was deprived of his signature. Hence the boy insists Ajith to affix his signature. Ajith says that he was unable to do so at that hour as he was advised by his doctor not to venture into reading or writing. Instead, he assures the boy that he would give the boy another book as a gift and sign them both in the near future. Further, Ajith explains how he had developed a theory of making replicas by the application of many scientific theories like the Einstein’s idea of gravitation. It had led him to experiment with wristwatch, insects, butterflies, guinea pigs and others. Displaying the rare idol of Ganesha, Ajith reminds Armstrong to recall what he had seen in Shaniwarvada museum. The idol in his hand was its replica.  It was a unique piece as the elephant’s head was turned to the right. Ultimately, Ajith himself was a replica of the original man. On questioning, Ajith discloses his success in experimentation with ‘twists in space and time’. Also, he highlights its shortcomings. After a few months, Ajith was found in a state of irreversible amnesia. No one could discover where Ajith had hidden the details of his experiments. Armstrong had only one witness that is, the rare idol of Ganesha who was also helpless to bring Ajith back to normal.

“The Unforeseen Option” is a perfect Science fiction story as it deals with the study of the attitude of the people of the next century. Five eminent persons Major Daljit Singh Saundh from India, William Moncrief from England, Dr. Carter Patterson from America, Colonel Ilya Morovich from Russia, and Chiang Teng from China were chosen for a mission. They are not initially informed about the destination, sponsors and the mission.  It was a mission taken up by United Nations to send them into the next century. Being the fourth dimension, Time travel has always become a fascinating thing and also a successful theme in Science Fiction since H.G.Wells.  Wellsian device was to send man back and forth on the time scale by making use of ‘Time Machine”. As far as the knowledge of this reviewer is concerned, (consider the stories of Robert Silverberg’s “The Assassin” through William Wu’s Robots in Time to Adithya (a Telugu Indian film), none of the authors in the past have succeeded in changing the past. Isaac Asimov therefore opines that the time past cannot be changed, as it is finite. The future is infinite. Even though he is fully aware of this fact, in “Ugly Little Boy” he explores the idea of time travel by making use of ‘energy exchange device’. But Dr.Narlikar is unique in utilizing the idea of taking the astronauts on a trip to Saturn and makes the spaceship to revolve round it for a century. The eminent persons who were in hibernation for that period, wakes up to return home safely.   As in “Rip Van Winkle”, they observe the drastic change on Earth. Like the four regions described by Asimov in the year 2052 in “The Evitable Conflict” (1950), Narlikar also fictionally foresees these four regions. One of the major problems those ‘Oldies’ take up is the energy crisis. Solar energy would be the major energy source. After analyzing the attitude of the people of the four regions, they foresee the crisis in the days to come and suggest remedies to the Earth people over a telecast program.

Narlikar invariably introduces children character in his stories. An unforgettable classic example for such a type is Tilloo in “An Alien Hand”. Often children have been helpful in resolving the universal issues. The boy out of curiosity asks his father Dr.Singh about “The Trojan Horse”. It helps the father to solve the mystery of the UFO. After considering other possibilities, he suggests the authorities to smash it.  The theme pertaining to UFO’s is also dealt in  “Virus”. There was an unprecedented alien threat from a spaceship to the Earth. The alien language could not be comprehended. The little master Dr.Shivaramakrishnan was called for communicating with the aliens. Instead of learning the alien language, he mailed an entire encyclopaedia, a large dictionary, and a picture book. Within a span of half an hour, he received messages from the intelligent aliens in spoken and written English language.  Their plea was to vacate the African continent for their biological experiments. The Earthites rightly speculated the alien purpose of colonizing Earth. Hence, Shiva used an innovative way of defeating the aliens by way of introducing half a century old virus in their operating system of the Mandan head of computers. The story bears similarities with Asimov’s “Victory Unintentional”(1942). “The Green Invaders” also deals with the alien problems. Several people like Shiva have witnessed the green invaders getting into in their spaceship. The conversation between A and B reveals the motto of the organization to kidnap intelligent scientists to work on their own in the colony. The scientists were happy and never they had complained to any body. They were not the Extraterrestrial origin but the Earthmen. The secret was revealed by the boy who analyzed the photo in which the alien was eating hamburgers. That means to say that the man was not only an Earthman but also recognized as an American.

“The Death of Megapolis” presents a dystopian view of the present Mumbai. Accordingly, the power problem might lead on to an irreversible situation of power cuts. It highlights however, ironically, the peak hours of bureaucracy, corruption and uplifting the status of vote banks. All of a sudden a fire breaks down by short circuit at a place where electricity is utilized by a section of people by making illegal connections. It is uncontrollable. Hence, the Metropolitan City has to be built again because everyone living there has his own dream to be fulfilled. Another story “The Adventure” deals with a historical event.

To conclude, the World of Narlikar generally indicates maximum use of Science and Technology for humanity. Like Asimov, Narlikar also believes in the supremacy of the human race. The intelligence of man can fully bloom to its supreme level and could solve problems of the corresponding days to come. Religion though takes an upper hand in a country like India; the author has made a sincere attempt to make readers transgress to a state of rational beings. Children with their inquisitiveness could also aid in finding solutions to the societal problems. In general, in the world of Narlikar presents a people of a non-corrupt, apolitical nature and aspires to have a rationalistic model of society.

Tales of the Future: Ten Best Sci-Fi Stories by Narlikar, Jayanth
Delhi: Witness Books, March 2005
Science Fiction ISBN 81-88938–00-9
Price: Rs 250/-

Cover pic from Wikipedia.

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Dr Srinarahari has obtained B.Sc., B.Ed., Diploma in Marathi, MA in English literature. He has been awarded a doctoral degree for “The Robotistic Works of Isaac Asimov: A Study” by Kuvempu University, Karnataka state. After serving for 40 years in Government of Karnataka he has retired as Principal. Now, he is working as Principal of Animaster College of Animation and Designs in Bengaluru, Karnataka, India for the last 5 years. He can be reached over; Dr Srinarahari is the Vice President of the Asian Science Fiction Association. He is the Secretary-General of Indian Association for Science Fiction Studies®, Bangalore, India. He has organized 14 National and 5 International Science Fiction Conferences. He is an SF writer, critic and reports for the number one SF magazine of the world namely Locus. SF Writing Short Story Workshop that he has conducted for the children of the age group 13-15 is acknowledged as a pioneer attempt. Also, he has conducted similar workshops for Scientists, Science Fiction Writers, Women writers, Research scholars, PG and UG students, Senior citizens, Working Women, Housewives as well as for all levels and age groups. The workshop products are published in the form of books. He has been compared to Thomas Clareson of the USA for his effort in bringing together people of all walks of life to be involved in Indian Science Fiction association activities. has several of his articles which reflect the holistic approach to the Indian Science Fiction Studies.