The second story in The Big Book of Science Fiction is “Sultana’s Dream” by Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein. First published in The Indian Ladies’ Magazine in 1905. By today’s standards, “Sultana’s Dream” is a rather simple narrative that imagines Ladyland, where gender roles are reversed. It doesn’t feel like a traditional short story in structure, and the VanderMeers called it a conte philosophique, which means philosophical fiction. In this case Hossain is writing utopian fiction, which is often science fictional. I assume the story was intended to be satirical, or even humorous, with it’s topsy-turvy gender role reversals. Now, it just feels quaintly sci-fi, but visionary feminist.
I wonder if Hossain was a proto-SF fiction fan, or had read utopian or science fiction fiction? Only when we use our imagination to put “Sultana’s Dream” into the context of when and where it was written does it become impressive. Hossain lived in British controlled India, and was Bengali, well educated and well-to-do. Wikipedia spells her name slightly different, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, and said she published under the byline Mrs. R. S. Hossain, but was commonly known as Begum Rokeya.
It’s in retrospect that we admire this story. For example, Chitra Ganesh created a graphic novel “Sultana’s Dream” in woodcuts, and the University of Michigan created an exhibit at their Museum of Art. Their website has a copy of the story to read online, and four different narrators reading an audio version of the story. They pick women of different ages to narrate the story. The same exhibit was at the University of Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery with a different set of presentations and videos.
I assume the VanderMeers were inspired by the recent republication of the story in Sultana’s Dream: A Feminist Utopia and Selections from the Secluded Ones by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, edited and translated by Roushan Jahan. That volume appears to have come out in 2015, the year before The Big Book of Science Fiction. However, there was from 2005 Sultana’s Dream; and Padmarag: Two Feminist Utopias by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain; translated with an introduction by Barnita Bagchi. I’m curious, are feminists finding these stories first, or science fiction historians? How was my favorite early feminist utopia, Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, discovered? I find these old SF stories through SF researchers, but did they find them first? And could Gilman have possibly read “Sultana’s Dream” from 1905 before she serialized her novel in 1915? Wikipedia says there was a novella version of Sultana’s Dream published as a book in 1908. Was it expanded from the 1905 story? Could a copy have gotten to America?
Although “Sultana’s Dream” is a simple story, its feminist ideas, as well as its speculation about futuristic technology and science, are as mind blowing for 1905 as time travel, space alien invasion, and space travel was in the 1890s when Wells was blowing minds. Especially, when we consider what India was like in 1905. Please read “Feminist Visions of Science and Utopia in Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s ‘Sultana’s Dream’” to learn more about Hossain and why her story really is more than what it seems. I also recommend, “Sultana’s Dream And Its Conception Of A Feminist Utopia” by Deeksha Sharma, especially for its link to “6 Indian Muslim Feminists In History” by Amna Nasir, that also profiles Hossain.
Do we rate the story by today’s standards of storytelling, or 1905’s standard of thinking? If you read “Sultana’s Dream” as just another science fiction story you might dismiss it. If you read it as the VanderMeers intend, to understand the evolution of science fiction, then its quite impressive.
The VanderMeer’s anthology is dedicated to Judith Merril who was famous for looking far and wide for stories to expand the reputation of science fiction in her anthologies. I think we have to accept the VanderMeer’s goal here. Although “Sultana’s Dream” is a quaint read, not famous in its time like “The Star” by H. G. Wells, their second story shows that science fictional thinking was happening all over the world.
But I have to wonder where Hossain got her ideas for solar power, and the other Jules Verne inventions? I wish I had more access to popular magazines of the time, because I believe they reveal popular thinking and culture better than history books. Far out gadgets and futurism was all the rage by some readers. Was it just a few geeks of the day, or were those ideas popular with everyone? Did the science fiction books that excited people in England get read in India as well?
Of course, I assume, science fictional speculation has always existed. My commonly used example is the Noah’s Ark, a catastrophe story that could have been the inspiration for “The Star.” This makes me ask, are there older, even much older, visions of feminist utopias? Could Hossain have been inspired by the ancient Greeks stories about the Amazons. Or are there feminist utopias in Hindu and Bengali literature? I don’t mean to suggest Hossain wasn’t creative, but my pet theory is all concepts have been around since pre-history, even science fictional ones.
When I discover old science fiction stories that I want to believe are the earliest examples of a science fictional idea, eventually if I keep reading, I find older examples. The Big Book of Science Fiction captures the examples from the 20th century. But if we had The Big Book of 19th Century Science Fiction, would we find earlier examples of all the ideas we thought first appeared in the 20th century? I believe there’s a kind of generational myopia that feels like everything cool was created for by some slightly older dudes and dudettes. For example, The Beatles and Bob Dylan are about ten years older than me. Us Baby Boomers thought they were revolutionary geniuses of our times. But actually, they were inspired by some slightly older musicians and songwriters, who The Beatles and Dylan were convinced were the revolutionary geniuses of their times.
I wish I had some kind of software where I could plot science-fiction ideas on a timeline that also positioned them on a map of the world. That way we could plot the progress of a concept as it evolved over time and space. When were flying cars first proposed? Hossain’s flying car was rather unique, but hardly the first. How far back do flying cars go as an idea, aren’t they really just a descendant of flying carpets and flying chariots?
James Wallace Harris, 8/22/21