A Selection of Bengali Science Fiction edited by Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay – Locus Online

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The Inhumans and Other Stories: A Selection of Bengali Science Fiction, Bodhisattva Chatto­padhyay, ed. (The MIT Press 978-0-26254-761-1, 162pp, $19.95, tp). March 2024. Cover by Seth.

For about 15 years now, Joshua Glenn has been banging the drum for the historical and literary value of “proto-SF” published between roughly 1900 and 1935. He dubs this period, with a touch of dark whimsy, the “Radium Age,” on the grounds that it roughly coincides with the period from Marie Curie’s discovery of radium (1903) to her death from radiation-induced leu­kaemia (1934), but makes a more substantive case for its importance in the preface that is included in each volume of the current reprint series from MIT Press, as a period of “upheaval around the world” that saw “the emergence of science fiction as a recognizable form.” For me at least, that “around the world” is the most intriguing aspect of the project: the potential to explore early 20th century SF history from a global perspective.

And so here we have The Inhumans & Other Stories. It includes four new-to-English stories by different Bengali writers, all translated, usefully annotated, and lucidly introduced by Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay (a World Fantasy Award winner as one of the editors of the Nordic SF journal Fafnir). The earliest story, Jagadananda Roy’s “Voyage to Venus” (1895), is a fascinating hybrid of scientific romance and fantasy, told with all the genteel au­thority of the period. The narrator, an academic with an enthusiasm for science, is frustrated that his close friend and erstwhile research partner has lately abandoned experimental work in favour of fiction-writing (“It was quite unpopular for a scien­tist to turn to literature”). With some effort, he per­suades his friend to participate in a discussion of recent academic research, but after a reading from “a little book by a famous English astronomer,” the narrator falls asleep, only to wake up on “the dark side of Venus.” After some initial exploration he finds his friend is there as well, and what follows is a classic planetary adventure, involving aliens (furred, clawed, humanoid), underground cities (“where the warmth of the planet’s core compen­sated for the lack of sunlight”), and bleak sublime (“in this faint galaxy the planet Venus seemed trapped in some profound melancholy”). But it is only a dream, and after a subjective time span of months, the narrator awakens, and in a moving revelation discovers that his friend has accepted a new job and is moving away: The dream was, it seems, a way of processing their growing apart.

In its tone, the nature of its protagonist, and the type of adventure, “Voyage to Venus” feels famil­iar from anglophone work of the same time; the most prominent giveaway to its origins is that the narrator names an alien who becomes their guide after Ghatotkach, a character from the Mahab­harata. The two other short tales in the book, “The Mystery of the Giant” by Nanigopal Majumdar and “The Martian Purana” by Manoranjan Bhat­tacharya (who was also an editor of Ramdhanu, an important magazine in the history of Bangla SF), both date from 1931, and both contain more extensive riffs on earlier texts. The latter story, in fact, is the shortest in the book, yet has the most footnotes; it describes characters from both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana chasing after a gem that, after being lost in the Himalayas, turns up on Mars. Those more familiar with the source stories than I will undoubtedly get more out of it. “The Mystery of the Giant” is a tale of a potion gone wrong, which set off very faint echoes of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) in my mind, although the narrator wonders if they have wandered into a tale from the Arabian Nights. I read the story as a critique of nationalism; a scientist intent on im­proving “all Bengali people… healthy, fit, powerful,” restoring national pride and glory, finds that his potion increases the size and physical strength of those who drink it, but not their mental capacity.

Which leads on to the title story by Hemendr Kumar Roy, the longest of the tales. First published in 1935, it is a very odd piece of writing indeed. The enabling frame is the narration of an adventurer in the early twenty-first century, proud of his exploits as a big-game hunter in Africa. He spends the first half of the story not just relating some of his own close calls, but quoting, at length, from W. Robert Foran’s 1933 account of the factual story of Paul Graetz, a German officer who hunted and was mauled by wild buffalo. It is a long-winded way of establishing Africa as the sort of place where extraordinary things can happen, and is not par­ticularly rewarding: as Chattopadhyay notes in his introduction, it is as “laced with… racist biases and tropes” as many contemporary European works, a rather less enjoyable familiarity for the reader than “Voyage to Venus”. But halfway through the story, the narrator discovers the diary of a fellow Bengali, which contains a vibrantly imaginative story about a secret Bangla nation who have achieved the kind of self-improvement that the scientist in “The Mys­tery of the Giant” dreams of: “Our souls are now the masters of our bodies,” one character explains proudly. The nation’s citizens can shapeshift and can decide how long they want to live. Their physi­ological fluidity has destabilised gender: While there are men and women, both groups lay eggs, and it’s heavily implied that individuals change back and forth at will.

In his introduction, Chattopadhyay positions “The Inhumans” as a hinge story between Bangla pulps and a more mature SF that arose after the end of British rule in India, and in this context reads it as a warning against nationalist myth­making. The depiction of the secret nation is certainly a sceptical one, portraying an atomised populace that have achieved technological but not social progress. Their governance is a disaster of solipsism. “No one here wants to listen to the other party,” a character laments. “They want to express their own ideas. This is how civilization works.” Yet the story is not a tract, and its senti­ments are not delivered through righteous anger, but absurdity; a final confrontation with the King has a distinctly Alice in Wonderland quality to it, ending in exile for the diarist. It’s also striking – to go back to the cross-cultural potential of the Radium Age as a project – that the secret nation envisions a posthumanity much more radical than that seen in the other stories in this book, a vision that would almost seem at home as a chapter of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930).

Given the complexity and costs involved in a US editor and publisher identifying, and often translating, work from other countries, it is perhaps not surprising that so far the majority of the work reprinted as part of the Radium Age has been by British and American writers, al­beit with an effort made to represent historically marginalised demographics. But while it’s a valid thing to reprint, as the series has done, works that may not be in print by such comparatively well-known writers such as William Hope Hodgson (The Night Land, 1912), H. G. Wells (The World Set Free, 1914), and Rose MacAulay (What Not, 1918), the historical parallax provided by a book such as The Inhumans is, for me, where the full potential of the project shines through. It is a very welcome addition to the series.


In Niall Harrison‘s spare time, he writes reviews and essays about sf. He is a former editor of Vector (2006-2010) and Strange Horizons (2010-2017), as well as a former Arthur C. Clarke Award judge and various other things.


This review and more like it in the March 2024 issue of Locus.

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