Once Upon A Time In The Future: modern interpretations of ancient parables

once Upon A TimeDon’t interpret the title of this anthology literally. These are not mainstream sci-fi short stories, not in the conventional sense of the genre. They are imaginative reinterpretations of the Indian epic, the Mahabharata. So this slim collection of spiritual stories is an unusual mix of ancient and modern, striving to capture a moment of infinite possibility and of cultural reflection.

The tales may be a little tricky for Western readers to get a handle on, each being a modern interpretation or development of traditional Sanskrit parables from the Indian subcontinent. Each story is self-contained but the mythology forms an over-arching continuum of moral reflections on the notions of truth, honesty, responsibility and loyalty. If you enjoy folklore, fables and fantasy then they can be read as such, or you can search for more significant spirituality within.

Which is not to say that these tales are stuffy or hard-going. Each is preceded by an overview of the original parable which inspired the modern interpretation, and these summaries can be a bit tough to digest, containing many unfamiliar names, most of whom are brothers, cousins, tribal leaders, wise men, teachers, wives or sons. It’s not exactly easy to get a grip on the relationships between them – but you don’t necessarily need to, in order to enjoy the new story which follows. Each of these either re-tells the story in a modern context, or examines it in more detail from an unusual perspective. There’s a couple of intriguing murder investigations – one of them almost a traditional locked room mystery – and in these stories the notion of moral responsibility and of accepting consequences is more important than the nuts and bolts of who / howdunit.

Another episode examines the concept of redemption, of forgiveness; earned in this case by the acknowledgment of past misdeeds. There are gods and deities in these pages, gods of patience and guidance, eternally nudging people towards the right path but never forcing anyone in a particular direction.

The result is a charming collection – perhaps not to be read in one go, but taken slowly, a story at a time, over a couple of weeks. Once read and digested, it would then be worth going back to more traditional Indian versions, then comparing the two. The writing of the modern stories is easy to access, not without considerable wit and occasional satirical comment, so these are easy to enjoy even if the meaning isn’t always immediately obvious…

The final story in the book is the longest and, for me, was maybe the least successful. It’s an examination of modern India, of its social development and business culture, told from a future perspective looking back to our time and revealing what might happen next. It’s sobering reading, with little optimism in it for a bright future for the Indian people. Again, it centres on the theme of moral culpability… and it finds the 21st century somewhat lacking. I suspect this story will mean the most to those who understand all of its references – much of it was beyond my ken although the general gist was plain to see.

Overall, then, a thought-provoking collection. Something rather unusual; an anthology to stimulate the spirit as well as the intellect. Definitely recommended for any with an interest in Eastern philosophy.

8/10

 

Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason

Once Upon A Time In The Future is available as an ebook and paperback

 

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