Carl Sagan, the eminent scientist, once said, “Many scientists deeply involved in the exploration of the solar system (myself among them) were first turned in that direction by science fiction. And the fact that some of that science fiction was not of the highest quality is irrelevant. Ten-year-olds do not read the scientific literature.”
Given its aspirational standing, the genre of science-fiction also leads the pack when it comes to socio-political forecasting in fictional literature. Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea spoke of the submarine Nautilus even before the Machine Age of 1880s to the end of World War. Brave New World of Aldous Huxley reminded the world of the perils of authoritarianism in 1930s, almost a decade before the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany on Jews.
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 talked about the importance of ideas and the imminent problem of “book burning”. Political debates are also no stranger to buzzwords such as “groupthink”. When we look at politics around us as Indians, it is nothing but the reflection of us, as a society. Social media, for today’s political animal, is only considered useful for furthering political interests. Politicians rarely delve into discussions like cyber-warfare, surveillance and data privacy since “real world has real problems”, which is obviously the case until members of a political party suffer as the victims.
Even if we do find such discussions, it is devoid of digital literacy and high on blanket statements. To provide the layman a far deeper understanding of virtual platforms than surface-level interface, an Indian science-fiction novel becomes imperative. Published by Griffin Publications, Shreyan Laha’s latest book “Virtually Lost” underlines all of them and more through the journey of Manisha, the protagonist of the novel. Manisha is lost in Pathabhrashta, a city governed by social media rules and where all its citizens are real-life profiles.
Like most science-fiction novels, Virtually Lost marvels in the art of allegory. Consider Xaria, one of the prime characters in the novel and a friend of Manisha. Xaria personifies the average teenager on the internet who is active on social media. She is receptive and unusually level headed when it comes to day to day arguments. She is open to learn new things. However, she falls prey to a cult which appears cool. Unknowingly, she tries to convince everyone that her cult is the best one and is fiercely protective of what she feels is right. There are other character arcs which may appear premature which serves an intentional allegory behind how profiles with high possibility of gaining traction gets banned for things which are deemed inappropriate as per the social media city.
With the rise of sci-fi novels like Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler or the Lucy Trilogy by Anandajit Goswami, we see facets of scarcity and modern issues in an extrapolated future standing as a dominant theme. On the other hand, when we look at the sci-fi novels of the last century, we find the themes of political authoritarianism and failed empires in a dark, dystopian setting. Virtually Lost, however, belongs to a unique territory. It largely retains the theme of resisting the corrupt, overarching regimes like the science-fiction novels of the past century – an old wine in a new bottle, serving as a throwback for fervent followers of the genre. At the same time, it also talks about the scarcity of thought, which is quintessential for the world to advance.
Regardless of decades or centuries science-fiction, as a genre, has reminded us time and again about how absolute power corrupts absolutely. One of the foremost examples is that of Mr. Jones from George Orwell’s Animal Farm – who used his farm to exploit the animals. In Virtually Lost, it is the usage of N.I.S.H. or Neural Information Sharing Hub by the city of Pathabhrashta which wreaks a similar havoc. Just like the neurons in our brain transmits thousands of, so does the N.I.S.H. The N.I.S.H. is a mechanism which collects information about every citizen through their brains, especially from who routinely break the laws of Pathabhrashta. The ecosystem of N.I.S.H stands as an attempt of Virtually Lost to make the layman understand about an individual’s virtual privacy and data sharing habits. Today, the common netizen is woefully unaware of what social media can do with the data a user accepts to provide at the time of installing the application.
Today, tech companies are rightfully questioned about the capture of user data and their subsequent usage. The purposes may vary from commodification with respect to third parties, for advertising, gaming and what not but in most cases, it is immaterial. Whether sharing personal data with third parties guarantees privacy or not stands as another question. Adding on, we see the concerns of virtual privacy either mostly swept under the carpet or not considered a major threat despite living in the age of cyber warfare. Through Virtually Lost, Laha has written a formula bound science-fiction novel which not only talks about the horrors of social media but also takes a stand against the rampant proliferation of our individual privacy.