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The Surviving Sky

The Surviving Sky by Kritika H. Rao from @TitanBooks #BookReview #Scifi #EcoFiction

The Surviving Sky by Kritika H. Rao

Titan Books, £9.99

Reviewed by Nadya Mercik

The front cover for The Surviving Sky by K.H. Rao. There is a large floating tree-like city rising out of clouds in the middle of the page.

The Surviving Sky is the debut novel of Kritika H. Rao, which plunges you into a mixture of genres – it’s a science fantasy, an eco-fiction, a dystopian story steeped in Hinduism philosophy, exploring the ideas of inequality, marriage, consciousness and society. It re-invents the idea of flying cities and looks at the climate problems through a very different lens.

Rao offers us an intriguing and intricate worldbuilding. The universe of The Surviving Sky is a jungle planet ridden by terrible earthrages, similar to the worst tornados and hurricanes. They make the surface of the planet unliveable; even the jungles have to regrow themselves in between the rages, the periods called lulls. The only creatures to inhabit the jungles are the ginormous yaksha-animals. Humans have no idea how exactly they survive the earthrages – the only plausible theory is that they do it solely thanks to their size. People have moved into the skies many centuries ago. They have found a way to build flying cities by trajecting the plants’ consciousness and creating ever-changing flying islands of plants that are capable of providing for their needs. Right now, several ashrams are soaring in the skies over the rages – they trade and exchange specialists at times but otherwise exist autonomously. To keep an ashram flying, you must constantly traject the plants, which is the duty of architects – the elite class, who run and rule the ashram. However, things don’t look nice now, as trajection has become difficult and the earthrages prolonged.

The story is written from two different points of view – Ahilya’s and her husband’s, Iravan. Ahilya is an archaeologist; she was born without the ability to traject and, despite being married to a Senior Architect, has bitter feelings towards the ruling class. She has made it her life purpose to study the jungle and the yaksha to find a way for humanity to return to the planet and to give non-architects more status and respect. She believes there is a special place on the planet where yakshas are able to hide; she is trying to prove that there are faults in architects’ interpretation of human history and that not everything revolves around trajection.

Iravan is a very talented architect. He was elected to the ashram’s council five years ago, and since then, his burden has increased significantly. Not only is he responsible for the whole ashram alongside other Senior Architects, but he now has to keep secrets from his wife, which makes maintaining the marriage really difficult. In the past, they have fought and quarrelled, but they both wanted to see changes to how ashrams are governed. Now, their paths seem to be taking them in completely different directions.

At the beginning of the story, we meet Ahilya and Iravan just before their ashram, Nakshar, is about to land during the lull. Ahilya is getting ready for her expedition into the jungle – she wants to check on the elephant-yaksha she had studied before and find more material to prove her theory. She also promises to smuggle a forbidden plant from the jungle for her friend Dhruv, who is tasked with building a battery to help the architects uphold the ashram. Dhruv is a sunengineer – a class of citizens who build different technologies; however, all those technologies are tied to trajection and dependent on architects; as a result, sunengineers can’t boast a high social status. Dhruv shares Ahilya’s ideas about the architects – he thinks they usurp the position and hopes to build the battery to win a seat on the council and limit their power.

Ahilya and Iravan quarrelled seven months ago and have not spoken since then. However, when the feat of landing the ashram is achieved, Iravan is prompted by his friend, co-councillor and former mentor Bharavi to go and spend some time with his wife. Iravan, torn between his anger and his love, decides to join Ahilya’s expedition. However, Ahilya resists his company, for with his presence, she would not be allowed to smuggle the plant. Iravan overrides her with his authority, but the expedition turns into disaster as the earthrage suddenly resumes. Iravan has to do miracles of trajections to bring them back. Even so, they lose one of the expedition members to the earthrage (a thing Ahilya cannot forgive either Iravan or herself), and on their return, Iravan is suspected of Ecstasy – a dangerous state when the architect is incapable of controlling their trajection. Ecstatic architects are excised – a procedure that leaves a person in a vegetable stage. Iravan has to prove he is not ecstatic, and to do so, he needs to resurrect his marriage, for material bonds are a way to avoid Ecstasy. Not an easy feat since each step seems only to antagonise them against each other.

As the situation gets graver, Ahilya and Iravan keep searching for their own path, but they also must find a way to work together, dig out the truths about trajection, Ecstasy, yakshas and earthrages, learn more about the consciousness and their history as well as save their ashram.

Rao’s novel turns out to be as multilayered and interwoven as the plant architecture of the flying ashram itself. What I really liked about it is that nothing is given in black-and-white colours – there is good motivation for every action, for every phenomenon, and though faulty they might be, they also seem inevitable. You may side with one group or the other, but there is always a deep understanding and portrayal of the other side. Personally, I found it next to impossible not to sympathise with both parties.

A big theme of the novel is class disparity and inequality. We see architects’ arrogance and might, their self-importance, but we also see their struggles and gradually discover how society shaped their egos throughout history. At the same time, the discontent of some non-architects, legitimate as it seems, is rooted in their limited knowledge of what the architects do. The misunderstandings between the classes are mutual, run deep and are linked to human faults and fears.

Hinduism philosophy and religion serve as a basis for many elements of the novel. Apart from dead and non-living objects, everything is imbued with consciousnesses, which range in levels and exist in conflict with each other. Architects’ Ecstasy has a mystical element and the Moment – a different plain of reality where trajection happens, and consciousness is pretty much visible and manipulatable. There is also the motif of reincarnation and repeating mistakes throughout the previous lives.

The family conflict between Iravan and Ahilya is very well-written. It was very difficult to side with one of them since two different points of view gave us the perspective of both, and I could see that there was truth on either side. It made the tensions seem unsurmountable at times, but that was also very natural. One of the questions of the novel is whether this marriage can actually be saved and whether it should be saved. It mirrors the bigger question of the novel – whether the current way of life could and should be preserved. But I am not spoiling you the answer to them.

In the beginning, I mentioned that the novel is also eco-fiction, and I liked how the narrative goes from the acceptance of the eco-catastrophe as some imminent part of the world to getting to the core of the problem and, in a way finding the answers within the self.

All in all, I must say that The Surviving Sky was, for me, both a fast-paced adventure and a deep meditation, an invitation to look at all the connections humans build. This is a vivid, poetical and rather topical novel filled with beautiful descriptions and poignant metaphors. What I would love to see is actually to see its illustrated edition someday, for this versatile world with gigantic yaksha beasts, plant cities, and the mystical trajection are extremely visual.

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