By Faraz Talat
In the early days of the lockdown that was imposed all around the world because of the rapidly spreading coronavirus, many people were talking about how some of the greatest pieces of literature were actually written by authors in quarantine during plagues.
The stupefying events of this year led towards the blossoming of fresh writers with avant-garde ideas, exploring different genres, in the literary landscape. Faraz Talat, with his debut novella Seventy Four, has efficaciously proven himself to be one such author. Science fiction is not a new genre, and neither is pandemic literature a new phenomenon. However, it is safe to say that a Pakistani sci-fi novel might be one of the rarest and most unexpected entities to exist. Hence, I was compelled to applaud the author’s efforts even before reading the book.
One of the most frequently asked questions nowadays is how the world will have changed after the pandemic ends. Seventy Four explores just that, with its post-pandemic dystopian setting. After having been neck and neck with what seems to be the apocalypse, humans have lost their faith in politicians and religious leaders and priests. Scientists and pharmaceutical giants have become the saviours, restorers and the divine and exalted rulers of the world.
With the mass eradication of human lives across the globe because of the spread of a neo-staph contagion, Central Asia and Europe have become the world’s sanctuaries, where the only known treatment — phage therapy — is available. Here, a technocratic order calling itself the “Colloquium” has risen and taken control of all that is left of the world.
A Pakistani science fiction novella set in a dystopian post-pandemic world asks important questions
The Colloquium levies a set of rules called the “Second Chance Laws”, which basically resolve to deny any sort of healthcare to persons who exceed the age of 74. This is explained to us by Faiz Qureshi, as Razia Nikoladze — a Pakistani émigré, distinguished scientist and the narrator’s sister — turns 74 years old. Razia has discovered a new, deadly contagion which could prove to be even more calamitous than the previous one, and is researching it, just after approaching the age of 74. A council of high-profile officials from the Colloquium hold hearings to decide whether Razia’s life is useful enough to humanity to be safeguarded.
At this point, the story brings up an important question: does a human life intrinsically have any value at all in a resurrecting world, where the potency and fecundity of each and every citizen is integral for breathing life into it? Could human lives be reduced to statistical figures? The Second Chance Laws seem absolutely vile at first glance, especially as we witness the physical and emotional suffering of our protagonist, but Talat effectively incites a philosophical debate with the sentence: “For a generation that had buried more children than it could count, a quiet death at the age of 73 no longer elicited grief.”
Faiz, in his narration, portrays a mechanical, perfunctory and spiritless world, where everything and everyone is objectified. Even the architectural description renders an emotionless and callous picture of the world. Interestingly, our narrator seems to be doing all of this quite knowingly, describing the setting as if he himself is also unaccustomed to this modern new world.
Nevertheless, the bond between the siblings, and Faiz’s own sketch of his emotions throughout the story, depict how — even in this callous, dystopian world — human emotions still remain at the centre of every story. In the beginning, Razia’s relationship with her ex-husband, Vadim Nikoladze, seems to be a contrast to that of the siblings and a reflection of the superficial world in which they live. But ultimately, even this relationship receives the depth it deserves. This contradiction gives a chiaroscurist effect to the story, maintaining a good balance between the dark façade and the light core.
Seventy Four is an important story in terms of the ethical and philosophical questions it raises, and the subtle manner in which it points out all the wrong actions of today’s people that can lead humanity towards its apocalypse. It is interesting to note how our era is referred to as the “age of ignorance.” Currently, we are already witnessing the consequences of not taking science and scientists seriously.
Through this story, one can also fathom the ultimate consequences of the ever-increasing capitalism in the world. Pharmaceutical companies, engaged in a race to produce drugs with maximum profits rather than potency, accentuate the class division among societies, landing the poorer countries in hot water in times such as these.
Faiz’s commentary on how, after having imposed the Second Chance Laws in the world for many years, the Colloquium still manages to build extravagant offices and spend on the luxury of its officials, also implies that corruption, partisanship and class divides remain unhindered in any form of human society. Ultimately, no contagion is more lethal to humanity than humanity itself.
As the author himself belongs to the medical profession, the thought of complicated biological terms and facts being thrown in one’s face might anteriorly intimidate one. But I assure you that this is not the case here. All scientific information is articulately dealt with in the book, making it easy for just about anyone to understand it.
The book might even take you on a stroll down memory lane to your high school biology class for a brief moment. At the end, I did want to have more of it, but the brevity of the story in no way tones down its poignancy or vehemence.
The reviewer is a freelance writer and student
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 10th, 2021