Size / / /

The Inhumans coverTwentieth-century science fiction begins in Bengal. This is the argument tacitly put forward by MIT Press’s Radium Age series of science fiction reprints, whose first entry, the anthology Voices from the Radium Age, opened with the 1905 story “Sultana’s Dream” by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. Given this opening move, it feels a little odd that it took until its fourteenth outing for the series to produce a book comprised entirely of Bengali science fiction. Both Niall Harrison and Michael D. Gordin have noted a preponderance of white British authors in their coverage of the series. Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay’s new anthology, The Inhumans and Other Stories, therefore presents a welcome break from that white hegemony, and a fulfilment of an earlier promise. By presenting four pieces originally written in Bangla and here translated into English for the first time, the book demonstrates that the Radium Age was a truly global phenomenon.

Spanning roughly from 1900 to 1935, the term “Radium Age” is designed to encompass the science fiction produced before the term “science fiction” had been coined and popularised. It fills a gap in popular knowledge between the scientific romances of the nineteenth century and the (misnamed) golden age of science fiction that was spearheaded by the American pulp magazines. In his introduction to More Voices from the Radium Age, series editor Joshua Glenn describes science fiction as emerging in this period “out of a hot dilute soup … composed of outré genres of literature.” Similarly, in his introduction to The Inhumans and Other Stories, Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay states that “Early Bangla sf (like early sf elsewhere) is a volatile admixture of genres.” For both editors, there’s a sense of the period’s literature as not merely diverse, but somehow unstable, a freer and more productive environment than the more codified science fiction of the later twentieth century.

The connection between Bengali science fiction and science fiction elsewhere is therefore contained within these books’ conceptions of the period they are said to mark. Certainly the stories presented in this book seem designed to confound twenty-first century Western ideas of what early science fiction “ought” to be. The title story, a 1935 novella set in Uganda but written by the Bengali writer Hemendrakumar Roy, starts off feeling like a “dark continent” narrative in the vein of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). But from the beginning, things are not quite what we might expect. The narrator cheerfully expounds:

You may wonder why I, a Bengali, was in Africa. This may come as a surprise, but I didn’t come here to work as a shopkeeper, a coolie, or even for a job. I came here to hunt. Oh how I love to hunt […] I have taken every sort of large game in India’s woods and jungles. I have collected it all. So I came to Africa in good faith to see whether the hippopotamuses, gorillas, and lions would prove worthy of my effort in hunting them.

This jaunty treatment of colonial brutality typifies the rest of the novella, but more striking still is a structural decision made in the first chapter. After a few pages of reflections from the narrator on the purported danger and spectacle of the Ugandan setting, these views are demonstrated using two lengthy extracts from a real contemporary memoir, Kill or Be Killed: The Rambling Reminiscences of an Amateur Hunter by W. Robert Foran, published in English in 1933. It’s a jarring intrusion into the narrative, but it draws a connection between our Bengali narrator and this British big game hunter. It also makes explicit the connection between Bangla literature and literature published in Europe. Chattopadhyay points out in his introduction that, as well as original stories like “The Inhumans,” Roy published translations and adaptations of works by writers such as “Conan Doyle, Wells, Burroughs, and Verne.” In an interview with Arley Sorg at Clarkesworld, Chattopadhyay stresses that “it is important to realize that these writers were writing in a globalized space, rather than in isolation.”

As well as highlighting the novella’s global connections, these interpolations taken from Foran establish “The Inhumans” as a story concerned with storytelling. The narrator stumbles on the corpse of a fellow Bengali hunter in a lion’s cave, and the encounter with the titular Inhumans, and their strange civilisation, is recounted in a diary he finds on the body. Much of the narrative’s action therefore takes place at an odd remove, creating a sense of alienation that adds to the weirdness of the Inhumans themselves.

And they are very weird. When the narrator of this story-within-a-story falls into a crevice and hits his head, he wakes up strapped to an operating table “suspended from the ceiling” of a strange room. Upon seeing what looks like a little barrel with eyes, he assumes he is dreaming, until the barrel asks him, “Do you believe this is all a dream?” These are the Inhumans, a lost race of ancient Bengalis who journeyed to Africa and set up shop in a remote location, altering their own physiology with experimental surgery. We learn that they have surgically removed their own bones and gained the power to stretch and compress their bodies, Mr. Fantastic-like, even as, “like tortoises in their shell, we make ourselves at home in barrels.” It’s a strange and memorable set of images, and some of the novella’s best moments come from playing with the Inhumans’ squishy plasticity, such as when a character is punished by being consigned to her barrel rather than being allowed to freely change her shape.

This premise suggests Doctor Moreau-esque body horror, but “The Inhumans” plays out as a broadly comedic satire once the strange barrel-creatures show up. When describing their surgical techniques, the “Science Master” tells the narrator, “Even if I took the time to explain this to you, you still would not get it. If you’re interested, maybe I’ll show you our children’s science museum.” These comic elements rub up against the Inhumans’ strangeness, the brutality of big game hunting, and the melodrama of the narrator’s predicament when the Science Master decides he wants to experiment on him. (We even get an honest-to-goodness “Take me to your leader!”) The result is a strange and captivating hybrid of popular fiction forms that is difficult to stop thinking about. Chattopadhyay notes that the novella “has never been out of print in Bengal” and on the strength of this English translation, it’s easy to see why.

The other works collected here are much shorter, but on the whole equally charming. The oldest, 1895’s “Voyage to Venus” by Jagadananda Roy, is the most similar to “Sultana’s Dream,” in that it follows the adventures of two scientists who fall asleep on Earth and wake up on another planet. The dream conceit does make parts of the story feel unsatisfying to a modern reader; it ends abruptly when the dreamers wake up back on Earth, and characterisation for the Venusians is scanty at best. In the aforementioned Arley Sorg interview, Chattopadhyay acknowledges this dynamic, pointing out that “early SF abounds in dream narratives, which in contemporary genre rules are not even regarded as SF—in fact, magazines explicitly reject works that turn out to be dream narratives at the end.”

But if “Voyage to Venus” does not feel like twenty-first-century science fiction, it is worth reading for its unique spin on the scientific romance. The conceit of the story, in which the protagonists arrive on the “dark side” of Venus and journey to the light side, allows for some lovely bits of detail. (One especially entertaining morsel is that the Venusians of the dark side survive on vegetables grown “deep inside Venus, where the warmth of the planet’s core compensated for the lack of sunlight.”) The protagonists are a pair of best friends who call each other “Brother,” which helps set up a pleasingly melancholic note when the two return to Earth and one of them moves away, and the cultural references are distinct from Western treatments of interplanetary travel. One of the protagonists speculates that “our heaven described in the Puranas must have somehow been connected to the life on this planet.” It’s a classic bit of nineteenth-century science fiction, the preposterously wrong science adding to its sense of joyful spectacle.

The anthology’s other two stories are both from 1931. One of these, Nanigopal Majumdar’s “The Mystery of the Giant,” is a tale of science gone wrong. An experimental potion designed to cure a man’s stunted growth instead turns him into a monster “as tall as two men, with a deformed face and a body covered in glass shards.” Those shards provide the story’s best image, with the revelation that the potion has “mixed with the chemicals of his body” and is turning his sweat and saliva into glass. The story chimes interestingly with the lost race narrative of “The Inhumans,” as the scientist states his intention to “create a potion that will once again transform us into the Aryans of old: healthy, fit, and powerful.” It’s a chilling declaration, even if Chattopadhyay’s endnotes are quick to point out that the word “Aryan” is used here in its original sense rather than that of its Nazi appropriation.

Speaking of endnotes, the book’s final story, “The Martian Purana” by Manoranjan Bhattacharya, is ten pages long and has nineteen of them. For comparison, “Voyage to Venus” is twenty-five pages long and has two. The story is dense with references to Hindu scripture, as gods and goddesses deal with oil monopolies and mount rescue missions to Mars. It’s an amusing and fleet-footed tale with some great jokes, the funniest moment coming when Hanuman arrives on Mars: “Hanuman had spotted a few round footballs in the distance, but on coming closer he realized that these were the Martians. After thousands of years of evolution, it seemed they had lost the need for limbs.” Yet, while the endnotes do an adequate job of explaining all the references, the story does feel like it requires a preexisting familiarity with these Hindu texts in order to get the most out of it. This is by no means a problem, but it is a contrast to the more approachable-to-Westerners tales that make up the rest of the book.

The Inhumans and Other Stories is a fine anthology, presenting four strange, funny, and above all memorable tales in slick and accessible translations. If it took a surprising amount of time to get here, it’s hard to complain about the results. This feels like a book that the Radium Age project would be poorer without. Hopefully it marks the beginning of a new thread for the series; works in translation feel like a natural area for the Radium Age to explore, and there are many more pieces of non-Anglophone science fiction that surely deserve a place in its ranks. For a book so full of experiments gone wrong, the inclusion of The Inhumans and Other Stories in the Radium Age series feels utterly right.



William Shaw is a writer from Sheffield, currently living in the USA. His writing has appeared in Space and Time, Daily Science Fiction, and Doctor Who Magazine. You can find his blog at williamshawwriter.wordpress.com and his Twitter @Will_S_7.
Current Issue
15 Jul 2024

I inherited the molting, which my mother will deny; she’ll insist it’s a thing only women do, each heartbreak withering from the body like a petal.
a sand trail ever fungible, called to reconcile the syrupy baubles—resplendent pineapple geodes
Who chose who spoke? Who silenced the sparrow?
Issue 8 Jul 2024
Issue 1 Jul 2024
Issue 24 Jun 2024
Issue 17 Jun 2024
Issue 10 Jun 2024
Issue 9 Jun 2024
Issue 3 Jun 2024
Issue 27 May 2024
Issue 20 May 2024
Issue 13 May 2024
Load More