Science fiction’s job has always been to extrapolate society’s trends to an unbelievable but provocative extreme. As the concerns of society change, sci-fi changes tracks, too. In his book The Black Dwarves of the Good Little Bay, Varun Thomas Matthew creates a dystopian world tailored to India’s fears and misgivings.
The dominant image of the book is of the Bombadrome, a huge tower built where there once was a city called Mumbai. The land outside is ravaged. No rain has fallen here in years, and the sea has risen to cover most of the former megacity’s buildings.
A dyke wall keeps the sea from invading further. Inside, the city’s former residents live in the present continuous, consuming glorified versions of their personal history through VR shows. All families get a room allotted to them, and the tower slowly revolves, so that one day a year, everyone gets to see the ocean as a special treat. How did the city end up like this? What happened in the previous decades? No one knows or cares.
No one, except one man, Convent Godse, the last surviving IAS officer in the city. Godse insists on living outside the Bombadrome by himself. He’s seen the current chief minister, nicknamed “Alas”, up close—in fact he had a ringside view of how Alas came to stand for election, and how he won it. He knows that was where things started going wrong for the city. Now Alas is preparing to contest national elections. And so Godse is writing his point of view, to let everyone know what really happened.
The downfall of the city was triggered by the arrival of the Black Dwarves—a motley group of workers who produced subversive art on public walls, asking tough questions of the government. They were generally tolerated—until their movement got taken over by professional “activist” types. The government began desperate attempts to control them.
A civil-war type situation broke out over Mumbai. Sensing an opportunity, Alas founded a party, which first tied up with the Black Dwarves and then went beyond them—instigating law-and-order problems to hobble the government. As the political environment became more toxic, the effects were felt everywhere.
Matthew interleaves time periods in his novel, talking of the present-day lives within the (futuristic) Bombadrome along with Godse’s recounting of his past. And as we read, we find out that the story may sound like a cautionary environmental tale, but it’s really a political allegory for what’s happening in India today.
The question posed for the citizens of the Bombadrome—and hence us readers: how low can the political discourse in a country get and still justify the means to power? Several of the incidents Mathew refers to in the story are out of today’s newspapers.
While Alas is at pains to deny his involvement in the worst of these incidents, he (and we) cannot deny that the atmosphere created by political parties facilitates the worst in men—and they’re thus partly responsible for the evil we see around us. Though the treatment of the topic may be heavy-handed at points, Matthew paints us an intriguing picture of a future where escaping into fantasy is the only way left for people to live with their own decisions. Well written and worth a read.
The Black Dwarves of the Good Little Bay
By: Varun Thomas Mathew
Price: Rs 450