Saturday, May 23, 2015

Science fiction trots the globe : Satyajit Ray from Bengal and Sergei Snegov from Russia

Imagine a society where the pursuit of happiness lies in the search for the absolute average, in the banishment of hyper- and sub-normalities, and the imposition of the norm with total prejudice. Where the leaders of society are individuals whose deviations from the societal average lie within a millionth of the tolerance bars. Where novelty is taboo, and innovations are censured. And then imagine such a society existing in a distant planet encircling a class M red dwarf star where the inhabitants are logical, rational, and highly mean-seeking human-sized violet-coloured bioluminescent grasshoppers.

Yep. Grasshoppers. Giant, violet, glowing grasshoppers. Rational ones, too. With a penchant for the mediocre.

I'll return to the Günterhoppers later1.


Imagine a planet-sized spaceship where the inhabitants number in the billions. Imagine this planet-arkship drifting through the inky coldness of the cosmos, and encountering the solar system on its merry stroll. Imagine it coming close enough to an errant asteroid for its controls to malfunction, for it to be thrown hopelessly off-track and crashlanding onto Earth. Without causing significant damage to Earth itself, thanks to it being as large as a standard football2. The arkship, naturally mistaken for something-that-looks-like-a-football-but-is-probably-not, is rescued one fine morning from the mudbanks of the local river and delivered to the, and for the, study of the local genius scientist and inventor, Professor Trilokeshwar Shonku. Shonku is astounded to find it to have a self-contained seasonal cycle that lasts one day, each twenty four hours having winter at midnight, spring at dawn, summer at midmorning and autumn/fall in the late afternoon. Tapping into a microsound magnifier device invented by Shonku himself, the inhabitants of the tiny world reveal that they are dying, trapped in the airless display box of Shonku's laboratory, and request to be let out. They also reveal that they are essentially sentient viruses, and could, and probably would, wipe off humanity in three months. Shonku is left debating which billion-strong civilisation to save.


When it comes to science fiction, the first names that come to mind are almost inevitably Wells and Verne from the nineteenth century, Clarke and Asimov and Heinlein and le Guin and Crichton from the twentieth, and a spate of modern, very capable writers. Most of these writers have written primarily in English, Verne being a notable exception whose translated works are of course ubiquitous. However, science fiction written in other languages do exist, and in some cases, have thrived for years.

The first paragraph above is a brief summary of one of the stories from Ambassador Without Credentials, a collection of closely-connected science fiction stories by the Russian author Sergei Snegov. The setting is twenty-fifth century Earth, and the protagonists are the physicist brothers Roy and Henry who investigate "baffling phenomena in space and society that were a threat to humankind". The twelve stories follow Roy and Henry's lives in a progressive manner, with the previous ones (episodes?) affecting the latter ones, evoking the structure of a season of something like Doctor Who. Roy is the cool-headed abstract thinking machine, while Henry is the impetuous one prone to intellectual leaps and depression. The plots are surprisingly strong, with a bizarre and extremely well-thought collection of science fiction ideas that focus perhaps a little less on the hard science and more on a study of the human psyche, both individual and societal.

The second3 paragraph is the summary of Golok Rohoshyo (The Mystery of the Sphere), one of the nearly forty-odd stories featuring the scientist-cum-inventor-cum-adventurer Professor Shonku. Shonku, sometimes assisted by his scientist friends Saunders and Kroll, encounters adventures around the world — some life-threatening, some less so — which he solves (or escapes from) using his inventions, his wit, and scientific genius. The plots, though not often very scientifically accurate, nevertheless are gripping and often quite strong. Inspired in part by Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger sans his domineering aggressiveness, Shonku is one of the iconic4 characters created by Satyajit Ray, a man perhaps better known in the world as a master of the cinematic medium. Ray was a prolific writer of short stories of surprising depth, and was reportedly once planning a Hollywood version of his The Alien, a script that later formed the inspiration for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial by a certain Mr Spielberg.

The similarities between Snegov's Roy & Henry and Ray's Shonku is their willingness and passion to solve problems using scientific ingenuity rather than violent means, a trait perhaps similar to a certain madman in a blue box.


Back to the Günterhoppers.

Roy is called to Leonia, home planet to the Günterhoppers5, to assist Kron Kwama, a sociologist specialising in decadent civilisations. There, the two of them devise a machine that will snip off sick and infirm Leonians from the calculation of the average and thus slowly raise the norm bar over a period of generations. Kwama is hopeful that the society will get back on its own six feet and two glowing wings, and Roy leaves a satisfied man. The action concludes here, there of course being none to begin with. Roy and Henry then team up to solve Fermat's Last Theorem6 by peeking into Pierre's notebook, chase away murderous mental phantom projections, try out a happiness machine, investigate a man who could walk through walls, and another who had attained immortality. All about five centuries before Shonku invented a medicine that can cure all ailments7, the miracurall.

1 Sorry, couldn't help myself.
2 Soccer, for those in the States. Not the oval thing. The round thing.
3 Well, the fourth, technically.
4 Well, in this part of the world anyway.
5 Not actually called as such by the author of course. Tin drums hadn't begun sounding out lives yet.
6 The stories were published in 1989, a few years before Andrew Wiles did the job without getting a chance to peek into Fermat's margins.
7 Except cancer. Initially. Version 2.0 could.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Calcutta's College Street : A Mecca for Secondhand Books

Jim Corbett was an English hunter-turned-conservationist with a surprising knack for good prose. He specialised in hunting down man-eating big cats in the Kumaon and Garhwal regions of erstwhile British India, and his vivid descriptions have since become very popular. At least in India. Well, at least in Bengal, where I hail from.

My first introduction to Corbett was when I was six. My mother had bought a secondhand Bengali translation for me on her way back from Presidency College where she would teach Bengali literature, especially stuff that Tagore wrote. She would buy that and similar other delicious books from this quasi-mythological place called College Street where the college, and quite a few of its siblings, used to, and still do, live in1.

Lo and behold! A dozen and a solitary year later, guess who would be taking up his major in the same college? Would the myth, pardon, quasi-myth be now debubbled? Would College Street be the stuff of Borges' Library, or would it dissolve into the unanimous night? To find out, tune in next paragraph. Same article.

Okay, maybe the paragraph after. You see, we Bengali collegefolk, especially those from Calcutta (now Kolkata), have a reputation of trying very hard to be intellectuals. Which basically means we sit around all day in our kurtas and sandals and carrybags and consume tea and coffee and ciggies and discuss Kafka and Sartre and Camus and generally be Metamorphosed Anobled Outsiders2. Now all of these ingredients steady supply of fire-breathing timid intellectuals; steady supply of tepid cuppas of thrice-boiled tea; steady supply of world thought and literature in printed form were all available at the timeless Coffee House. Which of course is in...(drumroll)...College Street!4

Back to the promised paragraph.

College Street stocks books in almost every Indian language. And in English. And in Russian. And in French. And in German. Books that have gone out of print for years. Decades even. It manages to do this because of its penchant for secondhand or used books. It has one of the largest collections in this corner of the world of used books, and a predatory stroll through its dusty nooks and crannies can unearth jewels. Which cost peanuts. Well, peanuts cost more nowadays. Anyway, you gotta bargain. The auteur Satyajit Ray was known for stalking the Street with his six-foot many-inches frame and hitting pot luck on multiple occasions. Students with pocket money barely enough to scrape by would scrape through the outer too-expensive new-book-crust and reach the inner cheap but glorious mantle of secondhand texts that generations of collegegoers have put lovenotes in. Scholars and academicians would go about unearthing dusty tomes and discovering their predecessors trying to emulate the once-marginalised Fermat. And once too often, a paperback or hardcover, perhaps an old but complete Decline & Fall or a forgotten Lost Horizon, would leave its former domicile for ever, ready to sleep, perchance to dream, awaiting to be awakened. Books never die. They are simply reincarnated. They are the true observers of all that is, all that ever was, and all that ever will be. Assuming the cosmos stays well short of the numbers 4, 5, and 1. In that order.

The boy of six, now a boy of slightly-more-than-six, closer to the inevitable end of his teenagehood, exits the gates of Presidency College. It is a warm day. The afternoon sun has turned golden. The kettles are full and boiling; the tea leaves are in; thirsting brigades wait, queueless. The soprano clatter of the enterprising photocopiers create imperfect anharmony with the baritone rattle of the lackadaisical trams. The boy sees none of this, hears none of this, feels none of this. He instead goes to the stall nearest the college gate. He sees an old, faded, yellowed, thin paperback. He asks, how much. He is replied, two hundred. He counters, five.

Sitting at the back corner window seat of the tram, homeward bound, the boy's wallet feels fifteen rupees lighter. His bag feels five ounces heavier. And Corbett stalks his Man-Eating Leopard through the jungles of Kumaon.

1 When one is little, and one hears stories, stories about stuff one digs, everything is quasi-mythological, just not too heavy on the quasi.
2 Doesn't actually mean anything. Made it up. Good pfun3.
3 Made that up too. The 'p' can be silent, if you want it to be.
4 Confetti? Fresh out. Sorry.