21 SF/F Authors Project, Book 3: Sultana’s Dream

Books & Mags

My latest reading project had a little hiccup: I had to replace one author on my list. Instead of Jane Loudon’s The Mummy, I’ll read Herland by Charlotte Gilman Perkins. This is because it turned out to be prohibitively expensive to get Loudon’s book, and nothing by her at all is available through interlibrary loan in my area. I’ve updated and rearranged my original list accordingly.

So, “book” number three is a short story called Sultana’s Dream by Roquia Sakhawat Hussain (the Western spelling of her name varies). Sultana’s Dream was first published in English in 1905 in The Indian Ladies’ Magazine in Madras (Chennai), India.

The setup of the story, framed as a dream, is based on late 19th and early 20th century Indian subcontinent, but with inverted gender relations and attitudes. It’s more like an examination of a scene or setting than a story with plot; in that sense, it reminds me a little of The Blazing World. But unlike in The Last Man, there are definite science-fictional elements in the story: solar power, collection of moisture from the atmosphere with the help of a balloon and a system of tubes (which lead to weather control), warfare by aiming concentrated sunlight, and flying hydrogen cars instead of paved streets and railroads. The latter are quite interesting:

“Then she [Sister Sara] screwed a couple of seats onto a square piece of plank. To this plank she attached two smooth and well-polished balls. When I asked her what the balls were for, she said they were hydrogen balls and they were used to overcome the force of gravity. The balls were of different capacities to be used according to the different weights desired to be overcome. She then fastened to the air-car two wing-like blades, which, she said, were worked by electricity. After we were comfortably seated she touched a knob and the blades began to whirl, moving faster and faster every moment. At first we were raised to the height of about six or seven feet and then off we flew. And before I could realize that we had commenced moving, we reached the garden of the Queen.”

Despite receiving no formal and little informal education in her youth, Hussain certainly shows her potential. Foreseeing solar power by several decades is pretty awesome, right? 🙂

Starting to publish in her twenties, Hussain became a writer, a women’s education activist (and a school founder) in addition to a campaigner for women’s rights, and her views are definitely visible in the short story. According to a review by Aishwarya Subramanian in Strange Horizons, Hussain “was learning the English language at the time, and wrote the story partly in order to show her husband what she had learned when he returned from a business trip” which would go some way to explaining why “[i]t’s easy to take Sultana’s Dream less seriously because it is so slight, and in many ways feels rather naïve.”

Subramanian’s review also places the story in context with regard to women’s education at the time, which was a really interesting point of view. I definitely recommend both the story and some introductory or background reading as well; the latter won’t add much by way of time, but will help understand the context.

A free e-version of Sultana’s Dream is available through A Celebration of Women Writers project hosted by the University of Pennsylvania.

P.S. Find all posts in the project with the 21 authors tag.

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