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FICTION: HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO JUMPS

September 10, 2017

A new science fiction novel? By a Pakistani? Sign me up! Those were my initial thoughts when I picked up my copy of The Light Blue Jumper, a story about a small band of rebels taking on an all-powerful interplanetary occupation force, in a battle against all odds and relying on the strange powers of a reluctant protagonist who may have been prophesied in the ancient scrolls. It sounded like space opera at its finest.

However, Sidra F. Sheikh’s The Light Blue Jumper is not so much space opera as space farce. It is inspired more by The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series than the Star Wars canon; stylistically the inspiration seems to be squarely in the space of comedy, with the absurdity of the situations played up at every opportunity. The central character is Zaaro, the titular light blue jumper. The colour refers to the tone of his skin and the word “jumper” to his apparent ability to transport himself across space. This is a skill that the rebels feel might be very valuable to their cause of fighting the (allegedly) despotic rule of the interplanetary force (IPF) that may or may not have designs on ruling the entire universe.

Zaaro himself is naïve in the extreme and appears perfectly happy to be ruled by the IPF, which brings routine and predictability to his life. The other characters, too, have various limitations when it comes to their buy-in of the rebellion, and for several of them their loyalties appear to be suspect at best.

Structurally, The Light Blue Jumper is written in a series of chapters of varying length, each told in the first-person from the point of view of one of the characters. The main group of passengers on the spaceship First Light naturally get greater opportunity to share their thoughts with the reader, but even the more tertiary characters get a chance to have their voice heard. As an exercise in writing, this is a very promising premise, especially as the same set of events and circumstances is filtered through the eyes of the various characters, showing their own perspectives and biases, and also plays into the ‘farce’ side of the story, piling misunderstanding on top of misunderstanding.

A debut novel that has all the elements of a rollicking good ride, but falls somewhat short of the mark

However, from the point of view of the story itself, the result is less than effective. There is no flow to the narrative to speak of, as each chapter asks the reader to imagine themselves in the mind of a different character. In the beginning, this is especially bothersome, as the characters struggle to establish themselves in the limited time they have with the reader. Also, as the story starts with the here and now and remains firmly fixed therein, the backstory of each character is either completely missed, or comes through only in snatches and scraps. This makes the characters difficult to relate to.

The characters themselves are also written in fairly broad strokes, with the author almost averting her eyes and hurrying past opportunities to develop them and their interrelationships beyond the most basic levels. With a narrative in the first person, a more nuanced deployment of the technique may have resulted in a triumphant examination of the differences between our actions and the perception thereof, but here that dichotomy is largely played at a fairly base level, for the obvious slapstick effect.

As a result, there is very little method to the rebels’ madness. Their triumphs are almost entirely coincidental and their setbacks entirely expected. The IPF, too, despite its malevolent intent to rule the entire universe, appears to be staffed by a cast of incompetents and buffoons. And although science fiction — especially this particular niche of the genre — doesn’t really need a strong connection to the rational world, this level of disconnect felt odd. Even characters that appear to be the smartest don’t, in their private reflections, ever remark to themselves on the sheer absurdity they are witnessing. This lack of a voice of sanity in the cast results in the reader, as observer of proceedings, feeling yet more disconnected from the narrative.

Serious moments in the book, such as the living conditions of some of the IPF’s subjects, the ruthless putting down of dissent, or the torture of a prisoner, are given the farcical treatment as well. The bad guys aren’t bad enough and hence there is little reason to cheer the rebels on in their cause. This makes for tedious going. As a reader, I was not invested in the characters, which made it tough to stay the course on this adventure.

With a Pakistani writing in an allegorical genre, I was looking forward to see how events in The Light Blue Jumper would echo the world around us, its events, politics and people. Particularly with a Pakistani writing from within Pakistan, I wondered if I would see echoes of the Pakistan I know in the crew of the First Light. I must confess that I saw very few. Some character names reflected subcontinental conventions of the most obvious kind — Salaar the soldier, Dinaara the princess, while Madam X had a nice Lollywood ring to it — but others were completely, well, alien.

The events, too, (with one minor exception, which would spoil a bit of the plot) didn’t really coincide with geopolitics at either a global or local level, and one is left wondering when this book was written and by whom. I mean, sure, Zaaro likes curry, but there is no reason for him to. Is his light blue skin a nod to Hindu mythology? Why is his belief in spherical body shapes as physically attractive treated as another symptom of his irrationality? We are left with more questions than answers.

Overall, I have to say I was a little disappointed. I was expecting a rollicking ride across the galaxy with a cast of oddball characters that I would start to care deeply for. What I got was all the components of an enjoyable book, but with very little soul. It was like the parhezi [non-spicy] food your mother feeds you when you are ill; it looks like biryani, has more or less all the same ingredients, but lacks the flavour that makes it a memorable meal.

I can’t help but think of this as a missed opportunity, and this was a recurring theme across the book. The plot and the characters have so much potential for clever, intricate and nuanced treatment, but what they get is a pretty superficial ride. The book is structured as the first in a series. I really hope that as she gets more words under her belt, the author gains the confidence to investigate the darker subject matter that lies just beyond the surface, waiting to be explored. Bringing more depth to this world and digging a little deeper into the dystopian side of peoples’ lives would not only make a much more layered narrative, but would also serve to lift the farcical elements out of David Dhawan territory.

The reviewer is a finance professional and occasional bookworm

The Light Blue Jumper
By Sidra F. Sheikh
Mongrel Books, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9697701049
278pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 10th, 2017