More on the SF Workshop at IIT – Kanpur

Being late and hurriedly written, this account is somewhat incoherent.  Re-writing it would take too long in my current state of time-zone zombied-ness.  My apologies.

For the first part of the report on the workshop, see here.

The workshop students continued to produce some wonderful work during my week.  Perhaps the best short, in-class writing exercises came from our discussion of SF and the Other, in particular the Animal Other.  We reviewed and discussed the science on animal emotions (which is to say, surprise, surprise, animals like mammals and birds and possibly others, have emotions!), and shared personal anecdotes about our own experience with animals.   The exercise was to write from the point of view of an animal.  We got some great responses, and I was interested to note how many people had picked insects.  No cutesy disneyfications — very cool stuff.

Another fun exercise was to practice walking through the verdant streets of the IIT campus as though you were an alien visiting Earth for the first time.  The reports these aliens sent to the mother ship, high in orbit, were most interesting.

One of the things I loved about this workshop, which perhaps distinguishes it from other workshops I’ve heard of (correct me if I am wrong) is that I got to talk about and initiate discussions about science.  I don’t mean just the critique of reductionist science stuff, but I got to teach just a little bit about gravity and its effect on people and biology, and also about global warming.  The former was in the context of world-building — imagining a planet different from Earth — and we also talked about how seasons occur and the different ways you could tweak tilt and orbital eccentricity to get a bunch of interesting climactic effects.  It was part of just a little we were able to do with hard SF, although we also talked about getting away from the old-fashioned hard SF that is so poor with characterization and language — I gave some examples of the good stuff, like the recent brilliant story by Carolyn Ives Gilman, Arkfall, reprinted in Year’s Best SF 14. 

The way I teach science is always very hands-on and dramatic, and I walk around and wave my arms wildly and drop things (necessary when you talk about gravity).  There were many in the group who had not done science for years or were vaguely put off by it without necessarily knowing why.  So it was particularly gratifying for me when their eyes lit up with understanding and when some of the students  came later to tell me they enjoyed it. 

I also talked about global warming.  It was refreshing to discuss this with intelligent people who had not been brainwashed by the deniers (I’ve often had one or two misguided people in my classes in the US who are convinced the whole thing is a conspiracy and it gets tiring after a while, especially if you want to go beyond the evidence to talk about mitigation).  My challenge was to present the science in about half an hour (I didn’t want to be in lecture mode more than I had to) and then launch a discussion. 

So I started by talking about the Greenhouse effect and why CO2 is a greenhouse gas — introduced the very poetic concept of resonance — pretended to be a CO2 molecule meeting IR radiation and did my little dance — and I think I got a pretty good response.  Then I introduced complex systems and we took off on earlier discussions of reductionism to talk about why the reductionist approach does not work on complex systems.  The discussion went off in various fascinating directions.  Finally I talked about the methane burps in the arctic and explained feedback loops and the runaway greenhouse effect on the planet Venus. 

The next day the students had to write a fiction piece based on an article about methane bubbling up from the permafrost in the Arctic.  Some of the pieces were brilliant.  And each was different, even though the same article was the basis for each story.  Among other things I wanted to turn the students on to reading science news regularly and writing imaginative SF based on what they read (while being critical of the way science is done/appropriated/used in our world). 

While on the subject of SF and the environment (and worldbuilding) I wanted to do an exercise on sense of place — geography as character, whether said geography is invented or “real.”  So on the penultimate day the students arranged for a couple of vans to take us to a place near Kanpur called Bithoor, which is on the banks of the Ganga and has both historical and mythological significance.  Apart from the fact that we got there late (the hired vans were on Indian Stretchable Time with a vengeance) and the roads were terrible and the whole place sadly neglected (while the state’s chief minister is busy having statues erected of herself all over the place) it was a memorable trip.  Naturally a bunch of Indians in a car on a pleasure outing will sing, and we did that, yelling out film songs with gusto and trying to remember lines of a favorite song, and arguing about which movie it was in. 

Bithoor itself was a tremendously atmospheric place, just the kind to take on character in a story.  A temple stood over the ghat steps and a thin old priest with grey hair tied into a roll was lighting oil lamps.  The river water was pretty low since the monsoons had not yet come, and I could see buffaloes and boys splashing about mid-river.  But it was an emotional experience seeing the Ganga again, even in the murky light of the late afternoon.  Grey sky and grey water, and some of our party in rather fragile boats, across the wide, shallow expanse, rowed by local boatmen.  I stayed on the ghat steps with a couple of people and we gave the priest some money to release diyas on the water for us — off went the little flames, carried by the currents into mid-stream.  I talked to the ancient pujari who had grown up on these very banks, and we joined in singing familiar bhajans while bells rang out over the water and the voices of children, temple folks and other visitors seemed to lift us to another place.  There were rhesus monkeys walking about with a baby or two clinging to its mother — they gave us sharp glances, looking us up and down to see if we had food.  Two great banyan trees arched over the water from the high bank on either side of the temple — I wondered what tales the trees could have told us if they could.

The story goes that in the Ramayana, after Ram exiled his wife, Sita, she moved near the ashram of the sage Valmiki right here in this area.  This is where she brought up her two sons, and when Ram came to beg her forgiveness and to ask her to return, she entrusted her sons to him and asked the Earth, her mother, to open up.  This was the place, according to legend, where the Earth complied and Sita went home.   

I’ve been hearing the Ramayan all my life, so — not remembering the significance of Bithoor before I actually stood on its shores — to be in this place of legend was beyond what I’d expected in terms of an experience of place! 

I’ll have to write more about it later.

We went back to IIT, singing lustily.  Everything from सुहाना सफ़र to रोजा जानेमन to सारे जहाँ से अच्छा ! 

Unfortunately we never got time to do the exercise of geography as character since the next day was the last day.  But I did emphasize that experiencing and writing about a real place gave us, as writers, a standard by which we could measure how well we had captured the spirit of an imagined place such as another world. 

The last day I had to leave in the afternoon so we finished by talking about YA spec fic — what works, what is appropriate or not and how it varies across cultures, and Rule Number One: Never Condescend to Your Audience — and discussed both Indian and non-Indian authors.  We had already talked a bit about race and gender in SF on the previous day as part of SF and the Other and we connected it all up.  Some of that discussion involved the question of how to write for a wide audience that included Westerners.  Does one explain everything — unfamiliar customs and the like?  What about introducing Hindi words or Tamil words?  This led to a great discussion.  Among other things: how meaning can be deduced from context, and how many of us figured out the meaning and significance of Western words/customs/references by context and by looking them up — so, as one young man said, let them do the same with our work!  (This latter comment led to cheers and claps). 

Along the way I talked about how important it was to keep in touch with SF in non-English Indian languages and their long history.  We had already discussed some examples during the course of the workshop.  I was delighted to discover that a good number of the students wrote in other languages as well.  One of them in particular is a published writer in Oriya and I hope that what he learned from the workshop will translate into great SF in both English and Oriya.  Another writes poetry in Hindi just as I do and we talked about how that influenced one’s English writing, and, in my case at least, how that keeps me from going entirely crazy. 

Lastly I initiated a discussion on workshop dynamics and my own workshop experience (and not everything translates across cultures) and we ended with my giving a brief overview on markets.  I wrote a list of useful links on the blackboard including those of interesting blogs.  Next time there is a blog discussion among Western commentators about Indian SF or India in SF I hope we will have people from India participating in the discussions. 

Then the goodbyes (always hard) and the journey to the railway station, where I hired a coolie since I was carrying an extra bag full of workshop readings and the like, and the journey home, where my brother and sister-in-law waited for me when the train arrived late night at New Delhi Railway Station. 

The workshop members have formed a Google group where interesting discussions are already going on, and where they are submitting stories for critique at regular intervals.  They bonded really well with each other, influenced each other, encouraged each other, invented a shared vocabulary and inside jokes, had misunderstandings and resolved them, put each other in their stories, and took wonderful care of each other in the usual Indian way — for example when one was sick, another student missed a whole afternoon session just to be with her.  They got me biscuits for the trip home and wouldn’t let me pay for them.  They gave me a great gift of two very interesting books and a souvenir from Bithoor, which, like most of the souvenirs even in that remote place, was made in China (!).  More than that they gave me the gift of hope in Indian SF and in India. 

The workshop would not have happened without the initial discussions between Anil Menon, Jaya Bhattacharji and myself, and, following that, Anil’s meeting with Suchitra Mathur at IIT-K and continuing discussions between the four of us about logistics, philosophy, planning, etc.  Without Anil and Suchitra in particular, especially with all the ground-level planning Suchitra had to do, the workshop would have remained a dream.  IIT-K did a great job in looking after us, providing us with food and accommodation and a seminar room.  So hats off to you three, best colleagues and sounding boards and also the best people to disagree with when we did disagree!

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8 Responses to “More on the SF Workshop at IIT – Kanpur”

  1. Arvind Mishra Says:

    Quite interesting account Vandana ji ,only one thing which needs your attention is the way animals (with emotions) should be depicted in sf-We are very well aware about anthropomorphism -judging animal behaviour through humane standards -a practice not appreciated by animal behaviourists and ethologists -though many legends depict animals as if they have emotions like man -Panchtantra and jaataak kathaahyen of Indian origin are classical examples. Animal farm by George Orwel is another modern day literary master piece -a satire which very effectively employs animals -pig protagonists !
    Seems a wonderful workshop indeed !

  2. Suneetha Says:


    I feel really nostalgic for the days at Kanpur now, even the heat and the dirt of the railway stations.

    I must really write down the first two weeks before I lose the flavour of those memories, although i dont think I will ever do that.

    I am sure the world in generl feels green-eyed at our lovely time



  3. Abha Says:

    This has brought back memories , Vandana. I think this workshop has been one of a kind. Thanks for being a part of it and making it happen.

  4. Josh Says:

    Your excitement is contagious. I hope you kept a journal or some personal correspondence about this adventure so that you can write or talk about more of it in future.

  5. vsinghsblog Says:

    Hello, all, thanks for writing.

    Arvindji, yes, you are right: it is one thing to say animals have emotions and another to say they have emotions just like us. However the work of ethologists like Marc Bekoff seems to suggest that at least for animals like mammals, we have so much in common that an initial hypothesis of “more similar than different” may not be misplaced. There has been quite an extensive coverage of this subject in New Scientist. Check out this article for instance!

    Suneetha, Abha, thanks for writing, and for helping make those memories! I would love to read your accounts of the workshop if you ever blog about it.

    Josh, I am still processing some of the things that came out of this workshop — it was, as you can likely tell, an immensely rich experience packed in a few days. Perhaps I will indeed write more about it at a future date.

    Thanks, all!


  6. indi-visible Says:

    The worst examples of anthropomorphism were those that involved wolves and coyotes, showing them as evil and diabolical. These portrayals made it so much easier for humans to hunt them to near extinction without a pang.

    Having said that it has been my personal experience (obviously anecdotal and not statistical) that the worst critics of anthropomorphism of animal emotions, are themselves the least interested in animal welfare. They just cannot stomach the notion that animals are anything like us.

    p.s. I have changed my monicker: hope that’s allowed. There are too many devils advocates out there.

  7. 2009 Indian SF Workshop At IIT-K: Part 1 (Getting There) « Round Dice Says:

    […] three weeks at IIT-Kanpur were filled with doing other things. Vandana Singh put up a couple of lovely pieces on her experiences at the workshop, and that finally shamed me into action. I've followed the […]

  8. A Process Conversation with Anil Menon and Vandana Singh | Chie and Weng Read Books Says:

    […] but I learned a lot from each participant’s work. For more details read my blog posts (here and here)  and Anil’s to get a sense of the experience (here and […]

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