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Exclusive Interview: “The Inhumans And Other Stories” Editor / Translator Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay

 

When we think about science fiction, we often think of the future.

But there’s a lot of sci-fi in the past as well. And not all of it as well known as those we think of as the achitects of the form: Asimov, Wells, Verne, Clarke, and so on.

MIT Press’ Radium Age series is now exploring that past by publishing what they call “proto–science fiction stories from the underappreciated era between 1900 and 1935.”

In the newest installment, The Inhumans And Other Stories: A Selection of Bengali Science Fiction (paperback, Kindle), we get to appreciate the era courtesy of Hemendra Kumar Roy’s titular 1935 novella, as well as through three short stories by Jagadananda Ray (from 1895), Nanigopal Majumdar (1931), and Manoranjan Bhattacharya (also 1931).

In the following email interview, The Inhumans And Other Stories editor / translator Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay — an Associate Professor in Global Culture Studies at the University of Oslo, and the producer of Kalpavigyan: A Speculative Journey, a documentary on Indian science fiction — talks about how this collection came together, as well as the significance of these stories.

Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay The Inhumans And Other Stories

I’d like to start with a little background. What does the word “kalpavigyan” mean?

Kalpavigyan is the Bangla (Bengali) word, derived from Sanskrit, for the genre we might call science fiction or speculative fiction in English. At least Adrish Bardhan, who coined the term, came up with it to match what we call speculative fiction.

But it’s a complex word, because Sanskrit is a complex language, so interpretations and translations from Sanskrit or its derivatives is a complicated exercise. Translated, it could be something as simple as “imagination science” or “imaginary science” or “fiction science.” It derives from kalpanā, translated generally as imagination, and vijñāna, translated generally as science.

These words however cannot be really translated without deeper cultural understanding. Kalpanā is imagination, but imagination is itself distributed into a variety of meanings, including “change of form” or “creation” or even “fictioning,” where kalpā or kalpa derives from the root kḷp for “forming” or “composing” and the suffix “-na” refers to its transformation.

But kalpa is also an ancient cosmological unit of time in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology. In Hindu cosmology, a kalpa is a day of Brahma, which is the time from the beginning of one world to its dissolution (calculated as roughly ∼4.3 billion years). Vijñānacomes with its own set of complications, as jñāna is knowledge, while vijñāna refers to a special kind of knowledge, which could be understood as a kind of intelligence, consciousness, or scientific knowledge. So kalpavigyan is a complicated word. It’s science fiction, world building, all kinds of things. But its easiest to dispense with the complications and go with science fiction.

So, how did you come to be interested in kalpavigyan stories?

I grew up with it in India! Though I grew up trilingual (by some measures, quadrilingual) in Delhi, I am a Bengali, and we use the word kalpavigyan for all kinds of science fiction literature when speaking in Bangla.

To me Star Trek is kalpavigyan when I talk about it in Bangla, and science fiction when I talk about it in English. I didn’t really separate genres growing up, nor was there a real age barrier in my reading. My parents didn’t bother with any of that; they just wanted us — me and my brother — to enjoy ourselves and lose ourselves in the world of books. We could read anything we wanted from the family library, which was basically tons of books. Lila Majumdar’s translations of the Arabian Nights in Bangla for children was read alongside the ponderous and adult Burton translation.

So I have been reading kalpavigyan forever. Whether it’s Bangla classics like Shonku and Ghanada, Anglophone such as the Asimov / Clarke / Bradbury stuff, or comics like Superman or Mandrake or He-Man, kalpavigyan just has been what I enjoy. I have also been into it for as long as I remember transmedially, so I don’t separate my reading of kalpavigyan from films or TV series or games either.

I can put a more adult spin on this now and say well, perhaps subconsciously I already realized that science fiction was perhaps the genre of hope, especially in a world that was terrifying (it always is to children), or a genre of dreams in a world that is fundamentally broken (because it is if we just take a look around).

And here one might mention Samuel Delany’s lines from The Paris Review, that “science fiction isn’t just thinking about the world out there. It’s also thinking about how that world might be — a particularly important exercise for those who are oppressed, because if they’re going to change the world we live in, they — and all of us — have to be able to think about a world that works differently.” But that’s probably more why I work on science fiction now, as academic, scholar, translator, or writer. But to be absolutely fair to my childhood self, this is all because I enjoy it.

And so why then did you want to put together a collection of kalpavigyan stories?

I did my PhD on early colonial era kalpavigyan, primarily from Britain and Bengal, late nineteenth century and during the modern period. So alongside all the usual Wellsian stuff I did a lot of archival research on colonial Bangla kalpavigyan. And I discovered a large number of texts, all untranslated, scattered in books and magazines.

Now there was no way to actually talk about these texts in an English language PhD without actually engaging with the processes of translation. I could have given snippets, but instead I translated a bunch of them just for fun and put them in an extended appendix.

I just enjoy science fiction or kalpavigyan, and I want to share my excitement and joy with others. Translating is a form of sharing joy. So I hope the readers enjoy this new book.

Along with Hemendra Kumar Roy’s novella The Inhumans, this collection includes three short stories: Jagadananda Ray’s “Voyage To Venus,” Nanigopal Majumdar’s “The Mystery Of The Giant,” and Manoranjan Bhattacharya’s “The Martian Purana.” What are these four stories about?

The Inhumans is a lost race adventure narrative set in East Africa. It is in two parts: the first a feral child narrative, and the second about a lost race of Bengali superhumans in a Wakanda like place.

“Voyage To Venus” takes us to Venus, which is split into a permanently dark and permanently light side, and it is a quasi-anthropological tale of the protagonists and their discovery of two distinct species of Venusians.

“The Mystery Of The Giant” is about a secret experiment carried out to improve human physical capabilities.

“The Martian Purana” is a humorous fable that brings connects ancient Indian epics, colonial modernity, and speculation about superhuman Martians.

And what subgenres of sci-fi do these four stories represent?

There’s lost world and lost race adventure, superhuman stories, alien invasion, etc.

Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay The Inhumans And Other Stories

Hemendra Kumar Roy

 

How did you decide that these would be the best stories to include?

I selected stories that spoke to each other thematically, and could together represent a slice of the kalpavigyan from colonial Bengal. All four stories share a common thread, that of degeneration and eugenics, which was a common theme in a large number of early science fiction works, whether in Europe, North America, South America, of India.

Early science fiction was obsessed with racial improvement, eugenics and the like. And several published volumes in the Radium Age series clearly testify to this, such as Charlotte Haldane’s Man’s World (1926) and Rose Macaulay’s What Not (1918). And the Radium Age as a period is the period of colonization and the world wars, so the violence of colonial conquest is also pretty much writ large in the genre production of the fin de siècle and the early 20th century. It does not matter from which part of the world we pick our science fiction examples from.

But to me it is key to see that while there is much that is similar, there are also key differences. One of the main differences in Bangla science fiction is the humor. It takes the ballooning pretensions of racial difference or superiority and then humorously deflates them by showing their absurdity and stupidity. And this humor is as much self-reflexive — directed towards Bengalis themselves – as it is directed to any outward source.

How familiar were you with these stories before putting this collection together? I ask because I’m wondering if any took you by surprise when you read them? Like, did one have something prescient in it, like it’s cyberpunk that predates John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider by 40-something years?

I was quite familiar with them, having done my PhD on the genre outputs of this period.

But in terms of prescience, The Inhumans stands out as an early example of cybernetics in science fiction (the term cybernetics itself is from later).

So, is there a reason you called it The Inhumans And Other Stories as opposed to Voyage To Venus And Other Stories or The Mystery Of The Giant And Other Stories or The Martian Purana And Other Stories? Or named it something else, like To Infinity And Beyond: A Selection Of Bengali Kalpavigyan Science Fiction?

The Inhumans is a novella, while the others are short stories, so that alone is an important factor here.

The original plan was just to translate The Inhumans for this collection, but after I started with it, it became clear that I could include some other stories to give a better picture of Bangla science fiction from that period. The plan to add the rest of the stories was an editorial decision taken together with Joshua Glenn, series editor for the Radium Age. For example, “Voyage To Venus” by Jagadananda Ray too deserves a special mention especially since it is widely discussed as the first work of Bangla science fiction (it isn’t). But there are a lot of misconceptions around it, not least its date of composition or first publication. But while the story does belong thematically to the collection, it does falls a bit outside the Radium Age chronology, so I must thank Glenn for letting me include it here with the other stories.

As for other titles, that never occurred to me.

The Inhumans And Other Stories is the first time any of these stories have been translated into English. So it’s unlikely that many contemporary sci-fi writers would be influenced by them or these writers. But are there any modern sci-fi writers who you think are similar to any of these four? Like, do you think Hemendra Kumar Roy is in the same vein as Jeff VanderMeer or Martha Wells or John Scalzi?

I try not to look at classic works from the lens of modern ones, because they tend to be different aesthetically.

That said, Martha Wells’ Murderbot stories, with their self-reflexive humor, can provide some interesting comparative insights on the role of humor and satire in the genre.

Hollywood loves turning short stories into movies. Are there any stories in The Inhumans And Other Stories that you think could work really well as movies?

The Inhumans is probably the best fit here, as it is the longest of the stories. It also has a certain timelessness — the timelessness of adventure stories, that makes it quite suited for adaptation. There’s wild forest adventure, wild animals, and a lost race with advanced technology — it could be really enjoyable. The work is also uniquely modern in challenging myths of racial, cultural, and ethnic superiority, especially superiority built on imaginary and idealized pasts, so it would be a treat to have it presented to modern audiences.

Yet Hollywood often tends to prefer spectacle over humor, so I think the humor somehow needs to be maintained should these works ever be filmed. Besides, laughing at the stupidity of myths of superiority is key in a time like ours. Yet, when it does engage with these issues, Hollywood also consistently tries to turn towards the moralistic and serious. It’s my bias, but I think science fiction just needs more humor. The future needs to be fun and playful.

Now, I am not Bengali. I am a white guy from the U.S. What do you think I will get out of reading The Inhumans? Or, rather, what do you hope I will get out of reading these stories?

If you are into early science fiction, you will get stories unlike others from the Anglophone world. You will get a unique glimpse into colonial era science fiction written from the other side of the colonial exchange, written from a different perspective and style, which are nonetheless riveting adventure stories.

Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay The Inhumans And Other Stories

Finally, if someone enjoys The Inhumans And Other Stories, which of the other Radium Age anthologies would you suggest they check out next?

The whole series is fabulous! Rose Macaulay’s What Not and Pauline Hopkins’ Of One Blood (1903) are two books that are thematically close to The Inhumans. Of One Blood is also set in Africa, in Ethiopia, and it also features a lost city, although Hopkins’ novel deals with the issues of race in a much more serious fashion.

 

 

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