Aliens of the same world: The Case of Bangla Science Fiction

On November 7, 2011 by admin

Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay

Locating Bangla Science Fiction

SF as a genre has always presented problems of definition. Since Gernsback’s “scientifiction”, attempts to define the nature of this genre have been common, so much so that when we refer to District 9 or Avatar as SF, as we did in this seminar, we think we know exactly what we mean. However, when we extend our understanding of SF to include those outside the predominantly Anglo-American (and marginally European) space, I believe we must redefine SF tentatively as an index of cultural transformation which may be understood through what I call the “history of scientificity”. I use the term scientificity as a concept. The colonial era, in which actual political control became the progenitor of a number of myths of science, is an important site for the study of concepts as orienting components – words around which archival and paraxial histories may be constructed. These histories are utilized by the colonizer and the colonized in the context of Bengal in ways that enable different forms of the same discourse: the discourse of legitimacy that gives meaning to the colonial situation. What remains unquestioned in these histories is scientificity itself. The existence of non-relative truths that may be discovered is never under debate. Working on colonial science, one must isolate strands of debate that allow “scientificity” to become enshrined as the principle of political legitimacy for both the colonizer and the colonized while reflecting upon the historicity of the concept itself.

SF is a space where the “transcendental” nature of science merges with its subjective “earthy” historical other in fiction; consequently, one must begin a history of scientificity and unravel when and by what means scientificity becomes an orienting component of the “future history” that is SF. This is as much a question in the history and philosophy of science as it is of modernity and the constitution of the modern self in the development of techno-scientific cultures. Since science functions as a constant field of cultural tension in the asymmetry of colonial relations, SF becomes an invaluable means of exploring the nature of cultural identity shaped by colonization. I have selected one specific kind of SF for analysis here – the category of the tall tale. This is because the tall tale most explicitly engages with the criterion of scientificity and reveals the questions which a history of SF must recognize.

Games of Truth in SF-Tall Tales

The stories of Joseph Jorkens written by Lord Dunsany, Edward Plunkett (1878-1957) and the ones of Ghanada (Ghanashyam Das) written by Premendra Mitra (1904-1988) belong to the category of travel tall tales. Tall tales that base themselves on travel have three basic dimensions. The first is the landscape and people of the travelled land. The second is the object or point of surprise. The third is the character of the storyteller, which defines the tale as a tall tale. The similarities between fantasy, SF, fiction and the tall tale are governed to a large extent by the presentation of the tale. The tall tale becomes a tall tale owing to the relation created between the teller of the tale and the event in which the teller participates. And the fundamental premise of the tall tale is that the tale is always described by the teller as absolutely true, exceeding the boundaries of fiction (which by definition is not-true). Unlike Munchausenesque tall tales, regarded generally as the forerunner of the genre, the similarity between Jorkens and Ghanada emerges in the precision of the narrated tale in scientific terms – including geographical specificity, use of expressions that convey the scientificity and hence seek to attest the truth of the narrated tale, and presentation of ideas and events which in themselves seem logically possible. The veracity of the tale is seldom under doubt due to the events themselves, the doubt emerges from the character of the teller of the tale and the tale itself is then compared to a framework of non-fiction outside the fictional world. All fiction is by definition false, the important part of the tall tale is not that which is clearly false, but that which posits itself as true. Thus if we are to pay attention to the actual source of textual meaning in the tall tale, we must locate it in the probable rather than the incomprehensible, because the latter derives its meaning secondarily from the former. By paying attention only to the locus of improbability, one is likely to miss out on the power effects of the images and ideas taken as true within the fiction.

In the context of the adventure stories described here, the two layers of truth that are particularly important are the presentation of the foreigner and the use of science. In the preface to the first volume of Jorkens’s adventures, the narrator explains that one of the purposes of the stories is to “advance the progress of Science, and establish our knowledge upon a firmer basis; yet should they fail to do so, I feel that they may at least be so fortunate as to add strangeness to parts of our planet, just as it was tending to grow too familiar.”. This is a recurring idea in the Jorkens stories: the impact of these stories on scientific knowledge. But the novelty of the scientific idea is supported by the “familiarity” of the taken for granted, whose scientificity is never in question. Thus even if we mark out the story as a tall tale, the experience of the improbable is only tied to the novum, Darko Suvin’s term for the new object or idea that SF introduces, and not to the cultural assumptions within which the novum is placed. Moreover, the experience of the scientific is exclusively linked to the British colonizer, and indigenous experiences of these objects become irrelevant in the “scientific project”. “The tale of the Abu Laheeb” is a prime example of the way in which the scientific project assimilates local knowledge. In this story, Jorkens travels to the “Empire’s edge”, Sudan, and seeks to hunt the elusive creature known locally as Abu Laheeb that uses fire like humans. The locals who wish to protect their knowledge of this creature from the “white man” refuse to reveal any information concerning the abu laheeb, choosing jokes over “truth”. Jorkens finally meets a white man living by himself in this place, who has managed to extract knowledge from the locals by unknown means. For Jorkens, this white man alone approaches the problem from a scientific perspective, that of a zoologist, who sifts through the many “stories” brought by the natives to find the grain of truth in them. Yet the white man himself is not very forthcoming with information at the beginning: “yes the natives believed in some such animal, but his own opinion he would not expose to the possibility of my ridicule.” Jorkens is thrilled to have the information, and his immediate thought is to be “the first white man that had seen the abu laheeb, and to shoot him and to bring his huge skin home” Jorkens pursues the creature down from the information given by the explorer-zoologist (“the last white man you see as you go through the final fringes of civilization”) and engages in reflections regarding the place, its inhabitants and tribes (the Dinkas). For Jorkens, hunting down the creature appears to be a scientific enterprise: “of all the steps science had taken from out of the early darkness toward that distant point of which we cannot guess, which shall be full of revelations to man, one of her footsteps would be due to me”.  He even considers naming the creature “Prometheus Jorkensi” (16). Jorkens finally discovers the creature, but unsurprisingly, fails to take a picture and is unable to shoot it down.

The fact that the creature is not discovered and is unverifiable makes the whole incident a tall-tale. Yet it is not merely the tale of the creature, but a whole network of assumptions that serves to make it a tall tale. Because it is only by privileging the white man’s knowledge and scientific expertise that one establishes the creature called abu laheeb within the story, and not the stories of the natives, whose stories and beliefs are always already classified as tall tales. It is the British colonizer who names and makes the creature “scientific”. Bruno Latour’s assertion is fully realized in this brief fiction, not as science but as the cultural claim of scientific knowledge which transforms the local into something abstract and fitted into the body of scientific data whose unquestioned master is the white colonizer. And it is not merely this one tale; Dunsany heaps stereotype upon stereotype in almost all of the tales, creating a picture of the East (which covers Africans as much as Asians) that is slow, listless, governed by superstition, Buddha like calm, worshipping false gods and witches, governed by fate, as opposed to the West, which is always higher civilization to the native. These stereotypes abound in much popular literature of the period, particularly as images of degeneration, but what is curious about Jorkens’ adventures is that the untrue is never experienced by his listener in anything but the novum, and Jorkens, despite being considered a teller of tall tales, is at the same time considered a man who has travelled widely. Indeed it is the narrator who is ever at pains to establish the scientificity of all of Jorkens’ tales. And while the novum itself is considered fabricated, the cultural assumptions within which the novum is placed are never realised as such. And despite the accepted superiority of the East in several respects, the main point of challenge and superiority of the West is always ultimately established in terms of science. In another story, “The Electric King”, one of the characters is driven to near-madness by a psychological trauma and he takes refuge in the “wisdom of the East”, namely a Tibetan monastery in the Himalayas to get a cure. The monks are able to cure the character, yet when it comes to utilizing scientific knowledge, the monks are curiously tradition bound and indifferent to the material benefits to be accrued from a change of practice. And their attitude is generalised to represent the homogenous East once again: “I grant you the wisdom of the East: it had saved my reason. But when it comes to organisation, you have to go a long way West for it. God’s own country every time.” The West, particularly Britain, with its healthy materialism is the source, origin and destination of science, independent of location and universal. It is the non-acquisitiveness of the East, it’s bondage to tradition and its spiritual nature that ultimately makes it indifferent both to knowledge and to its use as science.

This is where Ghanada’s tales provide an effective contrast. Also SF, and emerging from a shared field of ideas regarding scientificity and yet subverting ideas regarding the universality of Western scientific knowledge, Ghanada’s tales become a response to the homogenizing stereotypes of Jorkens. One of the first differences that register when one compares the two is that despite the apparent similarity of contextual details – the regular group of listeners, the teller being bribed to tell his stories (whiskey in Jorkens’ case, and food in Ghanada’s), the geographical precision of the place where the tale is set – is that the framework of disbelief in Ghanada exists prior to the tale, and Ghanada does not have a single believer amongst his group of listeners. The frame narrator of Jorkens’ adventures places them in a cast of truth, and only the improbability of the climax makes the adventure a tall tale. Thus in the case of Jorkens, we move from truth of the tale to the impossible/improbable, whereas in the case of Ghanada, we move from total disbelief to a network of real factual details established by Ghanada by means of geographical and scientific precision and back to the event as tall tale. Indeed, by not taking the truth for granted in Ghanada’s tale, one effectively isolates the tale as a tall tale even before it starts. Thus Ghanada’s position mimics the position of the natives in Jorkens’ tales, whose stories are not likely to believed simply by a pre-existing bias regarding the teller.

This equation is the one that is constantly presented in the Ghanada adventures. Ghanada is an adventurer-trader-spy in his many adventures, but he is always at the centre of things in all these adventures. This however is not a position that is given to him automatically; Ghanada generally always encounters at least one white man in all his foreign travels who will refer to him as a “nigger”, “black ghost”, “black mouse” and the like, before a showdown – generally physical – in which the white man loses. Thereafter the centrality of Ghanada is never questioned.

Because the utility and necessity of scientific knowledge is unquestioned and because only the white man is seen as capable of scientific activity, the Jorkens stories become an argument in favour of the colonial enterprise and the structures of science become the bolster for a simplistic hierarchical binary between the coloniser and the colonised. And this binary remains the framework of truth within which the tall tale is placed. Thus Jorkens engages in fantasy making which is inextricable from its colonial structure. Ghanada on the contrary engages in a conscious restatement of a past which is still recognisably colonial, but in which the power equation locally has altered to give not merely space or agency but active control to the native. For instance, in “Glass”, Ghanada proudly declares: “Do you know, if it weren’t for this piece of broken glass the first atom bomb would have dropped on London and not on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?” (28), launching thereafter into a story in which he foils Nazi designs to extract uranium in Angola. In the first two adventures, “Mosquito” and “Insect”, written during the last years of the colonial rule, Ghanada foils an attempt by a mad scientists (Japanese in the first and a German Jew with a grudge in the second) to spread genetically modified insects with great destructive power over all of Europe. In “Hat” Ghanada become the first man to climb Mount Everest and has an adventure with Yetis.

Ghanada meets the challenge posed by Jorkens’ directly. Firstly, he destroys the image of “spiritual East” by fitting into active roles rather than passive reflective ones. Secondly, while the tales of Ghanada are always doubted by his listeners, the precision of the tale and Ghanada’s abundant knowledge of the world – its culture, geography, politics and its languages – always add to the truth of the tale which has been pre-judged as a tall tale. Thirdly, Ghanada in his own way, even as he represents in his own tales the self-asserting native both physically capable, scientifically sound, and materially acquisitive, is quite a bit of a snob whose very pretence of being always the most important man in the piece creates a hierarchical structure vis-à-vis the white man, and in his adventures, he often becomes the only possible saviour of the British and Europe. Importantly though, in Ghanada’s tales the colonial hierarchy is rarely referred to in actual terms, and when it is, Ghanada is politically very much aligned to the British. Ghanada tales are based on a synthetic framework that both utilizes the binary used by Jorkens and subverts it. The foreigner remains foreign, but in becoming more familiar he becomes less alien.

Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay is Kultrans Doctoral Fellow at the Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages, University of Oslo. A version of this article has been published as: “Aliens of the Same World: The Case of Bangla Science Fiction” in Home in Motion:The Shifting Grammar of Self & Stranger. ed. Pedro F. Marcelino (Oxfordshire, UK: Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2011).



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