When men and women don’t need each other: A review of Sadhna Shanker’s Ascendance
On a distant planet called Elone, in the distant future, live two ‘species’ antagonistic to one another. Given their violent past – that began on their home planet, and continued even after this new planet was colonised – and after a planet-wise clash centuries ago which almost decimated each species, they now live isolated from one another; each on their own half of the planet cut off from the other by The Fence – an impenetrable opaque electronic shield that extends up into the mesosphere – so that members of the two species never have to come into contact with one another. With knowledge of their shared past now lost, and with only dim memories of who and what the other side is, each species now looks upon the other as the enemy. The two species? Men and Women.
This is the setting of Ascendance – the first science fiction novel from Sadhna Shanker, a writer and an Indian Revenue Service officer. In the book she explores the answer to the question, “What if women and men didn’t need each other to reproduce?” Her answer? They wouldn’t need each other for anything else, and humankind would splinter into two separate societies. And then she goes on to explore the ramifications of this split once these two factions leave a dying Earth – an event dubbed The Great Escape – and settle on a distant habitable planet called Elone (short for Earth-clone).
Once on Elone, each faction sets up its own technologically advanced city governed by its own separate council – but it is a co-existence fraught with violence as both men and women indulge in continuous war. After one such clash, the Fence is erected, forever cutting off the women from the men. Meanwhile, people on both sides of the Fence have achieved near-immortality, thanks to a special Elonian mineral called Nepo, which is used to manufacture replacement organs – a fact that has, over a period of time, rendered the question of reproduction moot. Once people realise they can live almost forever, they lose their desire to be a “clarent” (cloned parent). But there are some who still choose to have a child. One such person, Ultur, is a council member of the women and whose child, Seeni, is found “taken” (read killed) near the Fence. Thus begins Ascendance, with a death and the fragile truce of centuries coming under strain as old fault lines surface.
Naturally the women suspect the men, and the men – when they find out about the death – suspect this is a ploy by the women. As tensions mount on both sides, Ultur and her friends must find out the truth behind Seeni’s death, clues to which seem to lie in the uploaded consciousness of a mysterious 23rd-century Earth-woman named Maya, who also holds the secrets to their past – of a time when men and women lived together and of the events that led to the sundering of human society into two antagonistic factions based on their biological sex.
Meanwhile, political machinations abound on the male side of Elone as they look at this murder as an opportunity to revive ancient grouses against the women and go to war with them. The motive for this is only part ideological, because – to complicate things – the Nepo resources essential to their survival are running low on the male side of Elone and they now have their eyes on the female side, where this valuable mineral is still abundant. Furthermore, the men want to lay their hands on the secret Nepo replacement that the women seem to have stumbled upon or developed.
All of these many layers to the story end up being quite the set-up to Shanker’s debut science fiction novel, complete with political intrigue, a whodunit (and ‘howdunnit’) and an exploration of humankind’s future.
Written in simple, accessible prose and with a clutch of neologisms and a narrative structure that is more plot-driven than character-driven, Ascendance is a fast-paced read, where the action alternates between events that transpire on the two sides of the Fence. Shanker tries to balance the narrative between the men and the women, their respective strengths and weaknesses, and to treat each side neutrally. But there are hints to what the author thinks of her two societies: for instance, one of the main women protagonists is named Iwe to reflect the co-operative nature of the female side of the planet (I-we), while one of the antagonistic men is named Ime, to reflect the selfish nature of the male society he is part of (I-me).
The answer to the book’s fundamental premise, ‘What if the reproductive link between men and women were severed?’ is answered satisfactorily, with the additional layer of what would happen if people could live forever, but no more. As engaging as the book aims to be, one wishes the world-building was more detailed (beyond just technology and politics) and the book went deeper into the implications of a biological sex-based segregated society – in terms of relationships and gender roles. But then, it is the author’s prerogative to dwell upon and dig deeper – or not – on the implications of their own premise. This is a minor quibble, because within its own context, Ascendance manages to tell a complete, self-contained story with a conclusion that neatly ties up all the various narrative threads, including the murder mystery with nary a loose end, ending with an unexpected twist the men don’t see coming.
If you’re looking for a quick read, an accessible and interesting science fiction novel from an Indian author, Ascendance should be on your to-read list.