Why is the future such a terrible place? Science fiction writers owe us an explanation. In The Island of Lost Girls, we return to the world that Manjula Padmanabhan created in Escape. It’s planet Earth, but barely recognisable. The written word has vanished. Cities have crumbled under cement rot or drowned beneath rising seas—and are now built in tubes suspended over toxic waters and seething gorges. They heave with “the crush of fetid humanity”—feems, transies and clones, jostling for space. While on omnipresent screens are “severed heads, twitching limbs and shiny mounds of gut”, images from the war games being endlessly played in the Zone.
The Time Before—we are told—disintegrated 22 years ago after cataclysmic events. When eco-anarchists detonated nuclear devices in the Suez Canal, the earth’s mantle was punctured. Icecaps melted, wildlife perished, nations collapsed. After this cataclysm, the planet has been split into four exclusive enclaves. But the Whole World Union has obliterated one land from the new map—the Forbidden Country, in which women have been systematically exterminated.
It is from this forgotten, disgraced land—clearly India, though never specified—that our protagonists emerge. Those who’ve read Escape know Meiji and Youngest. Meiji is, perhaps, the only girl who has survived in the Forbidden Country. Youngest, her uncle, has had to smuggle her out of her dangerous homeland, while pleasuring a cloned general, playing agent and double-agent.
Youngest and Meiji arrive in the watery, claustrophobic new world in unfamiliar guises. Youngest is a transie with a woman’s body. While Meiji is a barely breathing presence in a steel-rimmed case. Eventually, Youngest finds the Collectory—from where damaged girls are sent to islands that erase memories, heal wounds and even stitch the girls back together.
So it is that Meiji, who has grown up in a land of only men, wakes up in an island of only women. She is appalled by the lumpy bodies around her, and desperate to pierce the fog of forgetfulness. Although compelled to share her day life with feems—girls who were traded and used as sex objects in the brutal Zone, girls with mismatching feet and missing eyes—she furiously rejects her identity.
Of course, Meiji is not the only one asking questions. Padmanabhan is an old hand at using fiction to prod the reader. And The Island of Lost Girls raises many what ifs. What if India actually continues on its present path, mass-aborting female foetuses, neglecting daughters, and allowing sex ratios to fall? What if our planet becomes even more toxic and burdened? Would any of us want to be part of a future in which technologies can read minds, erase memories and create a subhuman species called drones—“with low-functioning intellects and as mutes for the sole purpose of being slaves?”
These questions come to us wrapped in vivid prose and a fantastically imagined future. But where the book falters is in its rather jerky narrative and uninvolving characters. The story has no real beginning or end, and moves forward in fits and starts. The initial account is pacy, but once Meiji reaches the island the writer becomes preoccupied with the technologies that she has created. And the hasty ending seems almost stapled on as an afterthought.
Still, The Island of Lost Girls is worth reading. For its haunting quality, like a half-remembered dream that we hope will never come true.