Rise of the Red Hand

In which I have a relatively good time with Olivia Chadha’s far-future South Asian-inspired sci-fi story

This book started out very strong for me: taking a page out of the same book as the Portuguese-language TV show 3% (as well as many other scifi epics of recent times) it takes place in a distant future defined by unequal economic progress, in which opaque rituals determine the difference between the haves and the have-nots. In this case, the South Asian’s province’s elite residents are chosen by an algorithm and optimized using neural implants, and they live in the city’s sanctified upper tiers. They have clean water, climate control and breathable air. Outside their gates, squatting in the heat and squalor of the inner city’s shadow, denizens of the Narrows — a slum — eke out a meager and frustrated living.

Ashiva, the central character and a slum resident, erupts onto the page, propelled in part by a bionic hand and in part by a frenetic, eat-the-rich energy. “Uplanders have everything but souls,” she muses at one point, followed not long after by, “bloodthirsty rich people drunk on their wealth.” The society depicted in ‘Rise of the Red Hand’ is not an implausible extension of our current timeline, in which extreme resource shortages and climate disaster have brought about even more extreme socioeconomic separation.

Despite the familiar themes, Rise of the Red Hand grabbed me upfront with its deeply immersive, complex world. When it comes to incorporating South Asian elements into the story, this is one of the better speculative books I’ve read this year. The South Asian province is the descendent of today’s South Asia, and the characters speak in an English peppered with occasional Hindi words. “Aaccha,” one character says to another. One of my favorite terms, the ubiquitous “yaar,” makes frequent appearances. I almost wish this had gone even farther, and Chadha had spliced entire aphorisms into the text.

While the premise is compelling, this story struggled to maintain its momentum when it got into the actual plot, and it’s because the relationships between the characters failed to provide the glue that I needed. There’s a romantic subplot that needs a lot more development, and the final conflict hinges on Ashiva’s relationship with her adopted sister, where a lot of the important development seems to take place offscreen. The elements — much like the steps of an algorithm — were all where they should have been, but the feeling wasn’t quite.

Thanks to NetGalley and Erewhon Books for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.