Have you ever noticed how your reading habits develop a go-to sameness, and you head for books, often by the same author, in the hope of reliving an old high? From time to time I would find myself checking out sci-fi, for the ideas and imagination it offered, going through the likes of Isaac Asimov, and then Stanislaw Lem and Olaf Stapledon, who zoomed out to give me a view of the universe. But then I would drift away. I found their characters flat, always overshadowed by the Big Idea. I couldn’t find myself inside the frame. The writers belonged to a Western world, one they saw as the default setting. Didn’t we also have a place in the future?
Then I was handed Three Body Problem, by Liu Cixin. I had the real stuff. And the real stuff was now from China. It was also as techy, and saw the outreach to life on other planets as beginning with China, in fact with a Chinese woman who had been put in charge of a secret astronomy project far in the Chinese hinterland. Bold and extremely intelligent, and dispirited by the land she saw during the Cultural Revolution, she and the story she set in motion could be mean and edgy. But I still couldn’t find myself inside the frame. Instead of a White Western world I had got myself a strong confident Chinese world. Was the future always to be about someone else?
Then I read the blurb of a new book set in a world where women and men lived permanently separated by an opaque wall! What’s not to like in a world like that, I wondered. Men, for sure, would welcome this relief!
Sadhna Shanker’s science fiction tale Ascendance is set in a distant future. Earth is finished, and humans have relocated to another world, continuing the separation of men and women that began in the last days of Earth. They now live on two separate sides of the planet, in an uneasy truce after centuries of bitter warfare. Each side feels complete; women and men do not need each other to have babies. Indeed, there are very few babies, as everyone can live forever. And then…there is a murder.
In Ascendance you find the odd throwaway word, like vish or amar that rings a bell, and ambiguous names. A baby, made to order, is named Tara. Maya is an ancestral ‘woman’s consciousness’ who lives in the computer system, with memories of Earth. Shanker has been generous in giving space to other future people. Here was a futuristic world where I did not feel like just an onlooker. And it opens out into more than just a clever fantasy, becoming something deeper—a comment on our world. You look up, see your home, the networked lives we live, the relationships we take for granted.
Shanker conjures this other world in fine detail, with characters complex and conflicted, and a plot that moves forward from surprise to surprise. Even by the end, you can’t guess how the two sides could resolve their differences, you know that you need to hold on tight and trust her imagination. Because the ending, when it comes, blows you away!