Love letters and oral history: New horizons for sci-fi

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on June 19, 2020


Two recent science fiction novellas, both making it to the Hugo and Nebula shortlists, point to a new collaborative way forward for popular literature

* Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This is How You Lose the Time War won the Hugo Award and has been shortlisted for the Nebula Prize

* The Deep by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson had its starting point in an Afrofuturist rap song

Two writers meet at a science fiction convention and decide to send letters to each other. This may sound like the opening of a Reader’s Digest joke, but it’s actually the story behind one of the most talked about works of speculative fiction in recent years — Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s This is How You Lose the Time War. Mohtar (34) and Gladstone (35) felt that online spaces were too open and it wasn’t easy to be vulnerable in the public domain. So, they decided to write letters instead. Soon, they were collaborating on a novella written in the epistolary format.

This is How You Lose the Time War is now a global bestseller and one of the two books common to the 2020 Hugo and Nebula shortlists; it won the Hugo, while the Nebula winner will be announced in August.

The other novella featured on both shortlists is The Deep by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, Jonathan Snipes and William Hutson; the last three of those individuals wrote a rap song that became the novella’s starting point. Together, these two books are a great advertisement for collaborative writing as well as call-and-response experiments in literature.

The Deep ; Rivers Solomon, Daveed Diggs, William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes; Gallery/ Saga Press; Science fiction; ₹1,295


This is How You Lose the Time War is structured as a long, ongoing correspondence between agents Red and Blue, rival soldiers fighting on behalf of their respective galactic empires (both of which are in the future).

This is How You Lose the Time War; Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone; Gallery/ Saga Press; Science Fiction; Rs 1567


Red is a technologically enhanced assassin built like an action hero, with the ability to add or replace body parts as per the mission’s objectives. The crafty Blue, on the other hand, belongs to a plant-based, organic hive mind called the Garden.

Both Red and Blue use she/her pronouns, and both take on various forms (soldier, wife, femme fatale and so on) as they travel to various points in human history, following different “time braids”, tinkering here, changing there — all to win a centuries-long war between their civilisations.

One of the many remarkable things about This is How You Lose the Time War is that — despite the experimental nature of the endeavour, despite all the genre trappings and nerd humour and the thousand and one amusing sideshows the authors give us — it never loses sight of the fact that this is, at its core, a complex and subtle love story.

As rivals, Red and Blue won’t give an inch; and as lovers, they’re more in sync than a lot of cohabiting couples you’d know. It helps that their love notes are superbly written. There are puns (“our hoarse Trojans”) and ’90s jokes (“Dear Blue-da-ba-dee”, referring to the Eiffel 65 hit of the same name) sprinkled throughout the book but you would not be blamed for missing a few of those along the way, because the plot hurtles along breathlessly. The authors announced recently that a TV adaptation of the book was in the works.

On the other hand, The Deep began life as an Afrofuturist rap song of the same name by the underground hip-hop group Clipping, made up of three people: Actor/rapper Diggs (who played Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton’s original run) alongside producers Snipes and Hutson. The trio, in turn, built on the work of Drexciya, a little-known 1990s techno outfit, whose songs alluded to a mythological race of born-again drowned slaves (thrown overboard merchant ships on the Atlantic), whose descendants had the ability to breathe underwater. Both the song and the book are about an aquatic society, developed by these descendants, the Wajinru. As the story progresses, we see oil companies invading the underwater city, and the Wajinru’s defence and retaliation.

The protagonist, Yetu, holds the key to the Wajinru’s past — she is their historian, the one member of their clan chosen from every generation who becomes the living vessel for their blood-soaked memories, summoned and retold by the historian in an annual Remembrance.

The book can be read as a meditation on some fairly common dilemmas faced by black artists — should trauma be converted into art that feels joyous? Can an uber-commercial work of art, say the movie Black Panther, made on an extravagant budget by the most powerful (and, hence, hegemonic) movie studio in the world, ever hope to stand for the rights of black people? The Deep’s engagement with questions such as these is thoroughly polemic, challenging the reader to expand their horizons.

The two books also regularly reference older narrative modes — after all, This is How You Lose the Time War is structured as a romance through letters while The Deep wants to achieve the narrative effects of an oral history. Together, they represent an exciting new direction in speculative fiction, as well as popular literature as a whole — a brave new world of collaborative efforts and universe-building that’s rooted in real-world politics.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based freelance writer

Published on June 19, 2020

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