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Today’s Women in SF&F Month guest is science fiction and fantasy author Kritika H. Rao! Her science fantasy debut novel, The Surviving Sky, is set in “plant-made civilizations held together by tradition, technology, and arcane science” floating above an uninhabitable planet. It follows a married couple, one of whom is an architect with abilities that help them remain afloat and the other of whom does not have this capability—and it’s scheduled for release this fall!

The Surviving Sky Graphic


I always knew I was writing science fantasy, but in the early days of writing The Surviving Sky, when people asked me what my book was about, I—like many writers—fumbled the answer magnificently. After all, I was spending an entire book’s worth of words to answer that very question. If I could tell you what it was about in a few pat lines, I wouldn’t need to write that book.

Of course, since then, I’ve learned my loglines and my tropes, my tweet-length synopses and my clever metaphors. It’s a story about a husband-wife duo who are trying to save their marriage while they try to save their flying plant city from crashing into jungle storms. It’s a meditation on power and privilege, who we love, why we love, and the cost of love. It’s a critique of capitalism, a story about duty and shared human society, a reflection on our relationship to survival and our damaged environment, and an exploration into the way all of our actions impact our very consciousness. It’s very epic, very awesome, and it has EVERYTHING AAAA!

One truth is that this kind of answer is very common to most writers, to a certain extent. We pour a lot of ourselves and our thoughts and experiences into our stories; so, for us, it is hard to delineate themes and say, “Yes, this is exactly what our books are about.”

Another truth is there truly is a lot packed into The Surviving Sky. All of the above answers feel like they’re getting to the crux, but are not quite accurate. It feels like a hunt, as though each answer is a wolf closing in, that as a pack they are nearing their quarry. But the answer is elusive, it isn’t quite caught yet, it isn’t quite understood, though it has been sighted.

This may be a grand statement for me to be making about a book I wrote, my debut no less, but frankly, my answer on what the book is about changes with the framing of the question. It is often based on who the questioner is. And that, I think, is key to a book like The Surviving Sky.


One answer I often give, and one that is deeply inherent to the book, is that it is an exploration of power and privilege.

Exploration, I think, is a very important word here.

There is a pivotal scene early in the story where Ahilya, one of the protagonists, thinks to herself of all the many ways in which architects like her husband, Iravan, are so used to the world submitting to their magic that they never see how monstrous it is that survival itself is created to be architect-dependent.

Everything from their language (the fact that they refer to people like Ahilya as non-architects, ha!) to the permissions of the city (who gets access to magic first and how) is dictated by where power lies. Yet the world works in such a way that the cooperation and consciousness of non-magic folk is imperative to keep the city in flight lest it crash to the earthrages. Ahilya herself, though she would likely not admit it (or more importantly, acknowledge it), has so much power, that she holds Iravan’s magic and his ability to manipulate the world, and in some ways, his very sanity, in the palm of her hand. Both those powers are intertwined deeply, so where does true power really lie?

This question intrigues me on multiple levels.

I think this, in the end, was my favorite part of writing this book; the fact that I could pose questions, often from two very opposing perspectives with Iravan and Ahilya who are on opposite sides of the spectrum, without making a judgement call on the answer. While all the plot questions are answered, deeper questions like this are explored with many possible answers; and that answer, dear reader, is up to you.

My job as a writer is merely to incite curiosity—whether it is on theories of power or of consciousness. The way I see it—questions are far more interesting than answers. We forget the role of dialectics in knowledge-building when we engage in competitive debate—and my hope with The Surviving Sky is that readers are caught in the passions of the two characters and their opposing viewpoints so much that it makes them question their own point of view when it comes to the above themes amongst others.


Another question the protagonists think of often is their culture, both shared and forgotten. As an archeologist, Ahilya is plagued by the absence and erasure of her own history; how no one knows, let alone cares very much about non-architect culture; that in their world, no records exist of people who cannot do magic; and that she and her ancestors have never been more than set pieces to the glamorous heroic histories of the architects.

What’s worse for her is that no one besides herself thinks there is anything wrong with that—not even others who can’t perform magic. She is an anomaly even among her own kind, questioning the very basis of survival—and for her, questioning itself is a political and imaginative act. The answers almost don’t matter, but the very fact that she is asking questions and living in that space of uncertainty makes her different.

This, in so many ways, is one of the things that makes science fiction and fantasy so beautiful—the fact that there is a lot we cannot know, but a lot we will nevertheless explore. The best SFF to me leaves the reader with more questions than answers—and I think sometimes we forget just how satisfying a good question can be.

In this age of insta-answers, insta-interpretation, insta-information, we find it almost offensive if something isn’t instantly clear, but in my experience as a teacher and a student, it is often the questions and the exploration of them that have the potential to bring people closer together than any answer. I worry sometimes about what we are losing when we demand answers before we have fully pondered a question and its shape in the first place.

For me, those questions were where I got the idea for the story. The Surviving Sky was influenced from my learnings of the Vedas and Upanishads, from studying Jiddu Krishnamurthy’s work and re-reading the poetic text Gita (which is a study in contradictions and questioning). It touches on karma, birth, rebirth, reincarnation, time, awareness, freedom and the nature of thought and intention and the meaning of mind itself—all through posing different questions through separate devices, all through a breakneck plot and a slow-burn romance.

I don’t often use those specific terms very much in the book at all because of how much they have been sullied, and how badly they have been appropriated and mangled. But at the heart of it, there is always one more question, one more mystery.

And that I think, if anything, is truly the realm of science fiction and fantasy. So when someone asks me what my book is about, I think the most accurate answer is that it is an homage to the questioning mind.

Photo of Kritika H. Rao Kritika H. Rao is a science fiction and fantasy writer, who has lived in India, Australia, Canada, and The Sultanate of Oman. Kritika’s stories are influenced by her lived experiences, and often explore themes of consciousness, self vs. the world, and identity. When she is not writing, she is probably making lists. You might catch her on Twitter or Instagram @KritikaHRao or visit her online at www.kritikahrao.com.