When asked why he wrote science fiction, Isaac Asimov replied, “It works up an artificial society, one which doesn’t exist, or one that may possibly exist in the future, but not necessarily. And it portrays events against the background of this society in the hope that you will be able to see yourself in relation to the present society… That’s why I write science fiction — because it’s a way of writing fiction in a style that enables me to make points I can’t make otherwise.” This fascination of SF to engage with the cultural dominant by layering and embedding in the fantastical has come to define the genre over the past century, particularly in western fiction. However, such stories can sometimes become subservient and formulaic either because they lack the nuance to adumbrate or the capacity to transcend their immediate social surroundings. Tashan Mehta’s debut novel, The Liar’s Weave, carefully sidesteps this trap and embarks on an extraordinary enterprise to create an outstanding fictionalization of the contemporary world.
The Liar’s Weave, set in early 20th century India, is a story about a stratified society comprising of three main classes of peoples; the In-Betweens who can accurately predestine the futures of people, the Fortunates who have been blessed with good luck, and the Hatadaiva who are ill-fated. The In-Betweens form an ecclesiastical order of astrologers trained at the powerful Sapta Puri universities, seven institutions, “… that have perfected the art of reading the handwriting of the gods…” (p. 29) and practicing at the oft-adversarial Association. This grants them a position of incredible affluence even as they aim to adhere to a laissez-faire attitude towards the lives of their subjects, not unlike the Watchers from the Marvel Universe or the ideal of the Prime Directive from Star Trek (“The sacrosanct perspective of impartiality, of only dipping your fingertips into the pool of life, not the whole hand, is transforming.” (p. 100)). This policy of non-interference causes internal tension amongst their ranks and the manner in which they inevitably fail in this endeavour is embodied captivatingly through the narratives of utterly human characters such as Narayan Tarachand, Krishna, Svasa, and Govind, among others.
The second, and larger source of conflict comes from the rebellious faction of the Hatadaivas gathered in the heart of the Vidroha forest. This repressed group of outcasts led by their much-maligned leaders, Yaatri and Liling, seeks to wrest back control of their own destinies from the established order that told them the moment they turned eighteen, that their life was doomed. Reminiscent, at times, of Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves (2015), the defiance and mental fortitude of these human beings to stare down certain calamity and embrace a sense of self results in a cornucopia of emotional actions. These bring about an uneasy consistency that is congenial amongst the central characters, even if the purpose and message are beguiling; enchanting but in a deceptive way.
The Vidroha forest and its inhabitants are composed through brilliant evaluative and reflective streaks. Their rough, coarse exterior is slowly peeled back by showing their loneliness, their struggles and their inner beauty to reveal their supremely vulnerable identities. Uma, an elderly woman who suffered horrible violence and Dhani, a young child slated to die within six months, were shunned in the outside world despite having done nothing wrong: “He gestures to his small form, proud ‘I die in six months. I’m not crying. I’m going to eat all the fish and mangrove leaves I can.” (p. 142) Both find refuge and comfort here amongst other hatadaiva even on the bleakest of occasions like the Death Feast where they gather to commemorate a predicted death date, even in the most treacherous of forests. “Porthos moves, cracking a fallen branch, and the noose around a ringmaster opens to reveal a head, fangs and a forked tongue. The snake aims for Porthos’s shoulder.” (p. 106) They identify themselves with fiery pride as a people of their origins and imagined futures. It is easy to change oneself to suit anyone else, it is the hardest thing to reveal oneself as one is. Even if it is a simple self, care is in being that and not what is deemed worthy of perceived greatness. Mehta proffers this with acute acumen and elegance by drawing gorgeous imageries and metaphors.
Into the centre of these two complex and warring societies is thrust our hapless protagonist, a young boy named Zahan Merchant, with the supernatural ability to invent entire alternate realities by simply verbalizing his lies. He poses a unique threat to the astrologers’ way of living and offers a unique opportunity to the hatadaiva leaders in their pursuit of peace, divinity and control. Zahan barely stumbles from crisis to crisis with nary a clue as to what’s going on. Zahan’s powers are the stimuli that evoke a bewildering, yet exhilarating range of connections which, when the two societies ultimately collide, result in a sense of the sublime, subverting habitual narratives. The transition of differing ideas happens sans gaucherie even as the anarchical symbol of what to resist and what to fight against, parallels effectively against the backdrop of the national freedom movement.
Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens : A Brief History of Humankind (2011), casts ‘fiction’ as the real hero of what he calls the Cognitive Revolution in his Darwinian narrative of human society. What differentiated our human species, the Homo Sapiens, (that survived then and thrives now) from the other human species that populated Earth 200,000 years ago, is our language and related means of communication to build even that which does not exist. Sharing fictions and stories across diverse communities to coordinate and organize, according to Harari, was a key part of this cognitive revolution which in turn led to the agricultural and scientific revolutions, ultimately enhancing our emergence as the dominant organism on the planet. Alasdair MacIntyre drew equivalent interpretations of the importance of myths in modern societies as a way to gain sovereignty with absolute power. Similarly, the central motif, in Zahan’s world that is already taut with tension, is the power to create by storifying. Mehta does well to encapsulate this quintessential nature of evolution and injects events with moral and ethical discipline.
The Liar’s Weave does have its shortcomings, though. It struggles with pacing, particularly towards the end when there just isn’t enough time left for Zahan, Narayan Tarachand or Yaatri to allow for the resolutions to become satisfactory. It’s not that the conclusion is open-ended, in fact that ambiguity does justice to “… hold contradictions in balance …”, it’s the rushed ending that leaves much to be desired for. It suffers from being maddeningly overcrowded with numerous fringe characters which leaves important moments and relationships with unfulfilled potential. At times, the beautifully descriptive writing becomes laborious due to lack of restraint. However, these failings are easily overshadowed by the ambitious plot settings, well-developed primary characters and Mehta’s attention to tonal and thematic consistency.
Perhaps most importantly, The Liar’s Weave asks the basic and immediately recognizable SF question “what if” (in this case, what if we actually had the Gift to predict the futures of people?), and draws its sense of wonder by ably exploring this thought experiment. It delicately teases out a dissonance between the fictive world and the reader’s real world in the mold of the Suvinian concept of cognitive estrangement (cf. Metamorphosis of Science Fiction, 1979) through a rational extrapolation of the Indian social conditions. And in doing so, it brings historical innovation that is almost introspective and strikingly poignant. That’s what engenders cogitation and makes it such a worthwhile read.