Category Archives: SF

Muhammad Ali teaching Superman New Tricks

I know this comic by Neal Adams and illustrated by Denny O’Neil is old news, but not to me until now that I finally got to read it. I pretty much loved all of it, even that liberal spin that if we all just got a fair shake and did our best everything would be all right. It wouldn’t, but it would still be a nice first step. What they should have written was the story that made the analogy between the red sun’s effect on superman and smashing the effects of white supremacy and privilege, but. Well. An enjoyable story all the same. Because it had Ali actually explaining his moves:

Though I don’t get why it couldn’t look more like him, since it had his blessings. I also loved this spread of aliens coming for the big fight…too bad it’s all blurry, and you can’t see the fried egg dudes or los crazy chickens:

At the end they have this awesome audience who are all real…Cher’s in there, lots of DC people, lots of boxing people, Gerald Ford. There was a key, but it’s more fun without.

Strange Worlds: A splendid celebration of Angela Carter

We went to see Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter today at Bristol’s RWA — I love Angela Carter, one of the true greats. Her amazing words snake round you, drag you in so it is impossible to emerge from the spectacular quality of the worlds she builds and the strangeness of the images that she gives you. No one is whole, no one normal. The struggle of the surreal, the damaged, the hybrid, the brilliant linger long after the novel is done.

She has always filled me with wonder, love and extreme envy in equal measure. Ah, to write like that.

It is hard to imagine what could do justice to her, but this exhibition came close, it was such a pleasure to be in such an evocative space, to encounter these wondrous things was curated by Dr Marie Mulvey-Roberts of UWE, and the artist and writer Fiona Robinson of the RWA. Friday evening we’d been to an event at the Arnolfini — a talk about Ken Adam by Christopher Frayling and then a showing of Dr Strangelove, which Adam had worked as set designer on. We then had a lovely night of it over dinner and drinks with Marie and a few others. It felt like serendipity to come to this today.

From the website:

A major exhibition that celebrates the life, work and influences of Angela Carter twenty five years after her death.

In bringing together art and literature, Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter explores the enormous impact of author and journalist Angela Carter – one of the most distinctive literary voices of the last 100 years.

Echoing Carter’s recurring themes of feminism, mysticism, sexuality and fantasy, the exhibition includes historically significant works by Marc Chagall, William Holman Hunt, Paula Rego, Dame Laura Knight, Leonora Carrington and John Bellany, on loan from major national collections.

One large room is full of art influenced by Angela Carter, some of it recently commissioned. I confess this was my favourite room because rarely have I loved so much so deeply. It makes me long for disposable income as few things do.

A few of my favourite pieces. Like Sarah Woodfine‘s ‘Untitled‘ (Forest).

She had three pieces in the exhibit — I always feel a bit constrained in taking pictures, so I am missing the other two, but loved them equally. I would buy anything she did.

I loved Di Oliver‘s ‘The Fairy Tale‘ as well:

Also included were two of her exquisite linocuts. I would buy any of them too. Then there was this extraordinary mobile, called ‘The Forest Assassins‘ by Tessa Farmer. The label reads that it is created of banksia seed pods, crab claws, crab eyes, wormshells, birds’ legs, fish jaws, insects, plant roots, crocodile skulls, bird skulls, snake ribs,snake teetch, mouse bones, taxidermy birds, Portugues man ‘o’ war plyps, hedgehog and porcupine spines, whelk egg cases. There is more going on here. Everything is manned by tiny winged figures and ants.

Off there to the right there on the wall is ‘The Follower‘ by Simon Garden. Amazing. One of our other favourite paintings in the room, and on his website, well, I love all of his work.

Then there was these illustrations by Juli Haas, with windows to open on other worlds…

 

There was Lisa Wright’s ‘After the Masked Visitor‘, which is the featured image here, and Eileen Cooper’s ‘Tail of the Tiger’:

Then there was the amazing Ana Maria Pacheco, particularly ‘The Banquet‘, a massive sculptural installation, which appears incredibly and terrifyingly surprising as you open a dark curtain:

Ana Maria Pacheco The Banquet, 1985. Sculpture, polychromed wood 183 x 400 x 250 cm | 6ft x 13ft 1½ x 8ft 2½ in

 

I am leaving people off this list not because they were not brilliant, but because my mind is full to bursting. Because after leaving the great room of art inspired by Angela Carter, you continue on to a second room of art that inspired Angela Carter. Like Marc Chagall, ‘The Blue Circus‘:

The Blue Circus 1950 Marc Chagall 1887-1985 Presented by the artist 1953 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N06136

The “Quarrel of Oberon and Titania” (1846) by Joseph Noel Paton, that only became interesting when you look quite closely:

Some Leona Carrington — my favourite ‘The Amateur of Velocipedes

I am an Amateur of Velocipedes 1941 Leonora Carrington 1917-2011 Purchased 2004 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T11910

Then there was still more and even more — another room of illustrations and covers for Angela Carter’s own books. From the presentation as written on the wall:

Angela Carter was a writer who proclaimed to ‘think first in images, and then grope for the words’, embracing the complex relationship between words and images — art and literature.

I loved Eva Tatcheva‘s cover artwork for Sea Cat and Dragon King.

And then of course Corinna Sargood‘s work, both the oils and the linocuts…

This very cool collection of posters produced in a contest:

It has been a long time since I enjoyed an exhibition this much — and it was particularly exciting to have so many artists still working that I now know to watch out for. And so many of them women. This fails to do it justice and to name all the necessary names, but there is a book available to you.

Walking up the great hill we stopped in the remainder store, and I just happened to buy Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The World’s Wife‘. The first poem in it is Little Red Cap, and I read it waiting for our post-gallery cake and coffee and what another piece of serendipity, because it brought poetry to the prose and to the art we had just been drinking it. I felt lucky to read it for the first time like this.

At childhood’s end, the houses petered out
Into playing fields, the factory, allotments
Kept, like mistresses, by kneeling married men
The silent railway line, the hermit’s caravan
Till you came at last to the edge of the woods
It was there that I first clapped eyes on the wolf

He stood in a clearing, reading his verse out loud
In his wolfy drawl, a paperback in his hairy paw
Red wine staining his bearded jaw. What big ears
He had! What big eyes he had! What teeth!
In the interval, I made quite sure he spotted me
Sweet sixteen, never been, babe, waif, and bought me a drink

My first. You might ask why. Here’s why. Poetry
The wolf, I knew, would lead me deep into the woods
Away from home, to a dark tangled thorny place
Lit by the eyes of owls. I crawled in his wake
My stockings ripped to shreds, scraps of red from my blazer
Snagged on twig and branch, murder clues. I lost both shoes

But got there, wolf’s lair, better beware. Lesson one that night
Breath of the wolf in my ear, was the love poem
I clung till dawn to his thrashing fur, for
What little girl doesn’t dearly love a wolf?1
Then I slid from between his heavy matted paws
And went in search of a living bird – white dove –

Which flew, straight, from my hands to his open mouth
One bite, dead. How nice, breakfast in bed, he said
Licking his chops. As soon as he slept, I crept to the back
Of the lair, where a whole wall was crimson, gold, aglow with books
Words, words were truly alive on the tongue, in the head
Warm, beating, frantic, winged; music and blood

But then I was young – and it took ten years
In the woods to tell that a mushroom
Stoppers the mouth of a buried corpse, that birds
Are the uttered thought of trees, that a greying wolf
Howls the same old song at the moon, year in, year out
Season after season, same rhyme, same reason. I took an axe

To a willow to see how it wept. I took an axe to a salmon
To see how it leapt. I took an axe to the wolf
As he slept, one chop, scrotum to throat, and saw
The glistening, virgin white of my grandmother’s bones
I filled his old belly with stones. I stitched him up
Out of the forest I come with my flowers, singing, all alone

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Biosphere II

The entrance to the Biosphere II…

Biosphere 2

I remember this from my childhood, the great experiment to see if we could inhabit space under domes, live completely contained lives under glass. The great (although flawed) experiment here, here! Just outside of Tucson!

They couldn’t do it the way we hoped, the way I had read about in those Daw paperback novels with the yellow spines and the library’s mark of the atom, but the Biosphere II experiments taught so much…I remember the faces of the eight scientists who lived here for two years as seen through this glass. Way back between 1991 and 1993, way back.

I also remember them being a bit too celebrity-like, especially the women, looking at this picture I can see why I might have thought so.

Yet all these years and I had never managed to visit — I even drove all the way up here once with my friend Samantha, but it was too expensive. Worth it? Yes, but too expensive when we just didn’t have the money. Too many things are that way in this country, rather damaging to many of the potential scientists out there. But I digress.

I confess I wasn’t too impressed by the presence of a lawn in a place studying sustainability, but I love the futuristic style.

Biosphere 2

It’s at it’s busiest between Christmas and New Year’s apparently, so we were able to walk through at our own pace rather than on the tour. I’m sure we missed some things that way, but I think I might have preferred it, we had more ability to avoid other people. Best of all, we were able to climb up to the higher dome that served the original inhabitants as library — until they no longer had the calories and the oxygen to make it up the stairs. They are some stairs, I hate how much I can feel the altitude now when I come home:

Biosphere 2

The views — stunning. Out over the rainforest pyramid, with administrative buildings and the Catalina foothills in the background:

Biosphere 2

Looking over the new soil experiments (called the Landscape Evolution Observatory) where the old agricultural section used to be, the desert pyramid, one of the lungs:

Biosphere 2

A sense of the inside:

Biosphere 2

Back down a floor to the original crew quarters, it now hosts some awesome exhibits — a crazy mix up of science, science fiction books and film, casts and models and stamps. They include methane ice worms, the flower shaped ecopolis sitting sustainably (perhaps) on the ocean. But first one of my favourite things — the Lunar Greenhouse Habitat.

Biosphere 2Another experiment with a closed system (much smaller — much of the Biosphere’s appeal is just the scale at which the experiment was conducted), growing plants using hydroponic systems on carbon dioxide from human waste and respiration, along with other inputs from composting, harvesting and other waste. Very cool. The plants they are growing here? Cow peas, lettuce, sweet potatoes and basil, with a recent decision to include strawberries (these are from NASA’s approved list, for more from NASA on space gardening, go here).

Biosphere 2

Humans have been thinking about this for a while, though I think if flights of imagination in fiction were allowed, this timeline might stretch back much further than 1960 — I shall have to look into that.

Any such garden would almost certainly have to be buried underground — I love how much thought has already gone into what would be required to live on the Moon, or Mars.

They have an awesome model of Mars exploration:

Biosphere 2

The Soviet space stamps (made me all nostalgic for one of my favourite exhibitions of all time, on Soviet Cosmonauts in London’s Science Museum)

Biosphere 2

Meteorites used as blacksmith’s anvils in the 1800s:

Biosphere 2

A great deal of ‘miscellaneous’

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2

I loved walking through the great glass greenhouses themselves

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2

‘We are not gardeners’ said one of the employees in the rainforest dome. The first experiments were to see how much could be grown, how to keep things alive. Now they watch to see what dies and what survives, attempting to trace the complexities of ecosystems by leaving things alone unless they threaten the structural stability of glass and metal.

I don’t know if I could do that, I love gardens. I also loved walking in the belly of the beast, seeing how things worked underneath in the service tunnels — somehow this is where it felt most spectacular, came most alive in giving a sense of what it would be like to live and work in such a domed world.

Here we experienced sudden immense blasts of wind:

Biosphere 2

More tunnels (I really really love tunnels):

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2

The inside of the lung itself, designed to help ‘breathe’ and maintain air pressure constant to protect the greenhouses:

Biosphere 2

The lungs from outside:

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2

There was an awesome, if small, display on the Arab falaj, or irrigation system, that  works much like acequias (I think this is some of the heritage that Spanish settlers brought with them to the Southwest if I am not mistaken). Ingenious in their engineering, they also define town planning, with the Mosque closest to the water source to ensure the water’s purity.

The last stop is at the ocean section, where they tried to create a coral reef and failed quite spectacularly. I think, above all, this huge structure of overwhelming aspiration has taught us a great deal of humility. My favourite story — octopi (I prefer this to octopuses, say what you will) had smuggled themselves into Biosphere II hidden in the coral, and emerged to hunt at night. It took some time before staff realised why the other inhabitants of the ocean habitat were disappearing. Algae has essentially now taken over — this bears some relation to the actual situation of our reefs — and these bare rocks and scummy windows stand as a reminder of how we have no idea to recreate all the things we destroy.

We are very far from any possibility of survival on another planet. Best we take care of this one — Biosphere I —  and so it is scary to me that the words ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ were rarely mentioned here in either videos or displays, though they serve as a focus for all of the research. It showed just what scientists have to do in the face of denial from the highest levels, and that’s only going to get worse.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

James Lovelock and Gaia

James Lovelock - GaiaJames Lovelock opens Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth is SF fashion thus:

As I write, two Viking spacecraft are circling our fellow planet Mars, awaiting landfall instructions from the Earth. Their mission is to search for life, or evidence of life, now or long ago. This book is also about a search for life…

His questions — how do you detect life? How do you know life on another planet when you see it?

In our efforts to explore space and its far planets we traveled far, but the real magic happened when we turned around. That moment we were able to view the earth from such a distance in all of its extraordinary beauty as a planet forever changed how we see it, how we try to understand it, the scale at which we are able to think (though then as now, people continue to work and think at narrowed, focused, reductionist scales).

So how do you know there is life under vastly different conditions? It might take completely different forms…

Lovelock’s tentative suggestion is that you can know it is there through the slowing down or reversing of entropy. When you look at the earth it is immensely improbable that we should have life here, that there should be an atmosphere, that the temperature should remain so constant despite changes in sun’s own heat. It should have, could have settled down in any number of states of equilibrium as entropy did its work and things fell apart and died away. But on earth it didn’t. In his metaphor that I rather liked, most planets are windswept beaches, while earth is the sandcastle.

He quotes his own thinking from 1967:

Disequilibria on this scale suggest that the atmosphere is not merely a biological product, but more probably a biological construction: not living, but like a cat’s fur, a bird’s feathers, or the paper of a wasp’s nests, an extension of a living system designed to maintain a chosen environment.

The climate and the chemical properties of the Earth now and throughout its history seem always to have been optimal for life. For this to have happened by chance is as unlikely as to survive unscathed a drive blindfolded through rush-hour traffic. (9-10)

I love this idea of earth as a wasp’s nest, as biological construction. It sparks all kinds of imaginings. He continues:

By now a planet-sized entity, albeit hypothetical, had been born, with properties which could not be predicted from the sum of its parts. It needed a name. Fortunately the author William Golding was a fellow villager. Without hesitation he recommended this creature be called Gaia… (10)

Blimey. William Golding as a neighbor.

I found the unfamiliar science in here a bit dense, apparently most scientists found this far too poetic. I suppose it does quote H.G. Wells, refers to Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke. I rather love this tie between his attempt to make a leap in science based on a vision of our planet from space, and imaginings emerging from SF.

Lovelock looks not to the source and the start of everything, but to the creation of a planetary system able to maintain life. Imagining an early world of anaerobic life and stromatalites. One of the earth’s first cataclysms was the eruption of oxygen into the atmosphere, killing it all dead, though it probably entered the atmosphere little by little, allowing time for adaptation. But if there were too much oxygen? Things would get explosive. Too little? Life as we know it would die. How then, do we have just the right amount?

Through constant corrections made in myriads of ways. I loved the comparison with cybernetics, how it works not like linear thinking and moving towards a goal through cause and effect a la Descartes, but rather through a constant circular feedback-driven cycle of correction to maintain the goal. No clear beginning, rather constant movement, oscillation. Thus a focus on cycles that fits also with earth and agricultural systems and the many ways of life and thought most dependent on them.

Lynn Margulis is someone else on my list of books to read. She and Lovelock were colleagues and he quotes her saying that in each creature optimising its chances for life, the sum total is Gaia. It is an expression of how everything is connected, and life itself works to maximise the conditions for life.

Originally published in 1979, these theories have, of course, been much further developed since then. They are no longer new, no longer ridiculed in the same way. It was good to read where it started. Interesting also to see how much Lovelock himself has moved, not from thinking of Gaia as a kind of world system maintaining life on the planet, but in understanding just how much human beings are having an impact on it. Though he described a doomsday scenario in the book arrived at through genetic engineering, it is clear he thought us creatures of earth ourselves and thus integral parts of this system, our technologies were above all beneficial and could not have too desperate an impact.

He doesn’t feel the same way now, the preface makes that clear.

I am glad of that, though I rather liked the attitude that earth and life is so vastly bigger than we are, it doesn’t much matter if we manage to destroy ourselves. That reminded me a bit of Roadside Picnic by the Strugatskys.

This place has an amazing library. I hardly know what to read next. Yay weekend.

[Lovelock, James (1995) Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.]

Return from the Stars: The City of the Future

2bb02455f5bb878e1ca2ccb4faad2e2eReturn From the Stars — Hal Bregg has just returned to Earth after 127 years in space. Everything has changed. Bewildering public transportation systems moving impossibly fast, information points that take so much understanding for granted, they cease to be information points. Everyone is sedated through a process called betrization reducing all aggressive impulses — no one else will be going to the stars the way Bregg has. They use spray cans to put their clothing on. They love bright colours. They all seem a little bored. Their vocabulary has changed quite completely. It is utopia and also dystopia, a future of incredible technological advance, but something has been lost, has it not? So Bregg feels, so he is mistrusted by the bright, beautiful, youthful people around him.

The descriptions of this city of the future are pretty awesome, Bregg stares at the Terminal he has been fighting for hours to leave:

Was this still architecture, or mountain-building? They must have understood that in going beyond certain limits they had to abandon symmetry and regularity of form, and learn from what was largest–intelligent students of the planet!

I went around the lake. The colossus seemed to lead me with its motionless, luminous ascent. Yes, it took courage to design such a shape, to give it the cruelty of the precipice, the stubbornness and harshness of crags, peaks, but without falling into mechanical imitation, without losing anything, without falsifying. (45)

That’s the terminal from a park — these natural spaces are hardly used but found throughout, with ‘natural skies’ televised above them. This is the city:

Only now did I see–from the boulevard, down the center of which ran a double line of huge palms with leaves as pink as tongues–a panorama of the city. The buildings stood like islands, set apart, and here and there a spire soared to the heavens, a frozen jet of some liquid material, its height incredible. They were no doubt measured in whole kilometers. I knew — someone had told me back on Luna — that no one built them any more and that the rush to construct tall buildings had died a natural death soon after these had been put up. They were monuments to a particular architectural epoch, since, apart from their immensity, offset only by their slimness of form, there was nothing in them to appeal to the eye. They looked like pipes, brown and gold, black and white, transversely striped, or silver, serving to support or trap the clouds, and the landing pads that jutted out from them against the sky, hanging in the air on tubular supports, were reminiscent of bookshelves.

Much more attractive were the new buildings, without windows, so that all their walls could be decorated. The entire city took on the appearance of a gigantic art exhibit, a showcase for masters of color and form. I cannot say that I liked everything that adorned those twenty- and thirty-floor heights, but for a hundred-and-fifty-year-old character I was not, I dare say, overly stuffy. To my mind the most attractive were the buildings divided in half by gardens. Maybe they were not houses — the fact that the structures were cut in the middle and seemed to rest on cushions of air (the walls of those high-level gardens being of glass) gave an impression of lightness; at the same time pleasantly irregular belts of ruffled green cut across the edifices.

On the boulevards, along those lines of fleshlike palms, which I definitely did not like, flowed two rivers of black automobiles. I knew now that they were called gleeders. Above the buildings flew other machines, though not helicopters or planes; they looked like pencils sharpened at both ends. (54-55)

They still have cars, despite the flashing complexities of public transportation. The cars aren’t petrol based though. Nothing remains of what was, and Bregg is happy about that — no room for nostalgia here:

That nothing remained of the city that I had left behind me, not one stone upon another, was a good thing. As if I had been living, then, on a different Earth, among different men; that had begun and ended once and for all, and this was new. No relics, no ruins to cast doubt on my biological age… (88)

Funny, though, there is still immense wealth and it still lives in the suburbs:

We traveled a long time, in silence. The buildings of the city center gave way to bizarre forms of suburban architecture — under small artificial suns, immersed in vegetation, lay structures with flowing lines, or inflated into odd pillows, or winged, so that the division between the interior of a home and its surroundings was lost; these were products of a phantasmagoria, of tireless attempts to create without repeating old forms. The gleeder left the wide runway, shot through a darkened park, and came to rest by stairs folded like a cascade of glass; walking up them, I saw an orangery spread out beneath my feet.

The heavy gate opened soundlessly. A huge hall enclosed by a high gallery, pale pink shields of lamps neither supported nor suspended; in the sloping walls, windows that seemed to look out into a different space, (103)

Old racial constructs continue as well — this is a white world, and the only people of colour in it merit mention as in service to adventure fantasy — a kind of theme park where danger can be enjoyed through realistic holograms of an African river safari:

Although I had been prepared for a surprise, my jaw dropped. We were standing on the broad, sandy bank of a big river, under the burning rays of a tropical sun. The far bank of the river was overgrown with jungle. In the still backwaters were moored boats, or, rather, dugouts; against the background of the brownish-green river that flowed lazily behind them, immensely tall blacks stood frozen in hieratic poses, naked, gleaming with oil, covered with chalk-white tattoos; each leaned with his spatulate oar against the side of the boat.

One of the boats was just leaving, full; its black crew, with blows from the paddles and terrifying yells, was dispersing crocodiles that lay in the mud, half immersed, like logs; these turned over and weakly snapped their tooth-lined jaws as they slid into deeper water. The seven of us descended along the steep bank; the first four took places in the next boat. With visible effort the blacks set the oars against the shore and pushed the unsteady boat away, so that it turned around… (90)

Women, too, have forgotten how much they love raw emotion, desire, power plays, rape. Some, but not all of this confusion is evoked by this rather hilarious cover:

Return from the Stars

I confess, while Return From the Stars is one of the books that works best of Lem’s in terms of narrative and arc, it is one of the ones I have liked least apart from the imagined built environment of the future. The unnamed city is also in evidence in other versions of the cover, but I couldn’t find any other illustrations sadly…

c0c25f17287809.562b808c96753

Return from the Stars

[Lem, Stanislaw. 1990 [1961]. Return From the Stars. London: Mandarin Paperbacks.] It doesn’t credit the translator! Bastards.

For more science fiction…

Save

Save

Save

Satyajit Ray: The Wonderful Professor Shonku

Satyavit RayI am only just now discovering for myself the wonderful literary creations of Satyajit Ray — young adult literature that is pure enjoyment for all ages. I finished The Diary of a Space Traveller, and am on weekends working through the large collection of detective stories, Feluda. The first of the stories of Professor Shonku opens with the discovery of his diary in a meteor crater, and this is one of the first lines:

Oh God, was he going to tell me another story about a tiger? Tarak Babu had this most annoying habit of dragging a tiger into whatever anecdote he happened to relate. (2)

Who can resist this? There is no tiger, but an irascible and brilliant old man who ceaselessly invents the most wonderful things. The first entry in Professor Shonku’s diary sets the stage, when he is startled by an intruder — a weird looking man — but finds it is simply his own reflection that has startled him, as his faithful servant has removed an old calendar from the mirror. So he shoots his servant with a snuff gun, ensuring he will be sneezing for next 33 hours. I am not generally in favour of shooting servants ever, but I am indeed in favour of the existence of a snuff gun. I also enjoyed his desire to invent various pills for making annoying people uncomfortable enough to leave him alone.

His is not precise science you understand, more that marvelous old-fashioned alchemical science that relied on bunson burners and vials, glasses full of strangely coloured liquids bubbling over flames and jars full of rare and magical things (like the whiskers of lobsters). And this is not a world empty of what appears to be magic, but one where science acknowledges there is much that it does not yet know.

It is a world of intelligent cats and crows and nosy neighbours and rockets and all things nice.

It has titles like ‘Professor Shonku and the Egyptian Terror’, and another reason to love the professor:

I decided to visit this strange tomb, if I could find the time and opportunity. I love cats. I had to leave my own Newton at home. I feel homesick whenever I think of him. (161)

These particularly reminded me of Verne or Conan Doyle — Professor Shonku is described by  Satyajit Ray as a mixture of Doyle’s Professor Challenger and his own father Sukomar’s creation Hesoram Hushiar. They are told resolutely from a Bengali perspective. A scientist with many friends in European and American circles, who travels widely and is as widely respected, but still within a post-colonial reality where he occupies a certain space. He is told by a sinister Egyptian:

‘You appear to be an Indian. So why are you getting mixed up with these white brutes? Why are you so concerned about the ancient and holy objects of our past?’

Despite this space, he shares some shortcomings that usually I only associate with Americans and Europeans —

But that was really not so amazing, was it? Bengalis might be a most diverse race–two unrelated men rarely look similar. But the Egyptians are different. On Egyptian frequently looks like another. (174)

Oh dear…he says something very similar about the Chinese. But still. His love of ancient and holy objects and knowing the past is actually combined with a strong respect and ethics in dealing with such things found rarely if ever in fiction by white authors. I loved ‘Professor Shonku and the Box from Baghdad’, where they come across both mystery and treasure and this happens:

Al-Hubbbal smiled a little dryly. ‘I don’t mean you, Professor Shonku, but–‘ he paused and glanced at Goldstein, ‘–many of our valuable possessions have made their way to museums in the West. So even if you didn’t want anything for your own use, I fear you might tell some museum or other about things you’ve seen.’

Goldstein looked embarrassed… (211)

Spoiler alert — Goldstein does in fact try to take the marvelous Box, and he is struck down with a fitting punishment.

Finally. Everyone gives a cheer.

This little book ends most delightfully with more information about both Satyajit Ray as author (and, of course, famous director) and Professor Shonku. There are two fact files and these brilliant lists as little games that younger readers can play guessing their meanings. The first list is of some of Shonku’s inventions:

Camerapid
Luminimax
Annihilin
Remembrain
Cerebrilliant

Pretty awesome. And then there are all these wonderful compounds:

Paradoxite powder
Bicornite Acid
Paranoium Potentate
Ferro-satanic Acid
Tantrum Boropaxinate

Immensely enjoyable, the only thing I am saddened by is the lack of presence his hometown of Giridi bears in the stories, or any of the cities he visits. But you can’t have everything.

Save