Science fiction shows us enormous possibilities, of dark or light,” said author Debojyoti Bhattacharya while addressing a panel discussion, which was a part of the ninth edition of Apeejay Bangla Sahitya Utsav. Of course, a lot more was discussed during the programme that unfolded between November 24 and 26. There were panellists of repute as back-to-back discussions explored the theme of feminist writing, science fiction, literature from Bangladesh and much more.
The panel discussion around science fiction started with Dip Ghosh, the founder of Kalpabiswa, a Bengali sci-fi e-magazine, sending out a few thoughts potent enough to make Oxford Bookstore, on Park Street, buzz. “Bengali science fiction set off with a lot of translation work, including the works of Jules Verne and then it grew organically, holding the hands of Hirendra Kumar Roy and Premendra Mitra. During the ’60s, Adrish Bardhan, Satyajit Ray, Dilip Roychowdhury, and Premendra Mitra created a science magazine called Aschorjo.”
What role does science fiction play in our society?
Influenced by contemporary science fiction from the West, authors/contributors began offering mature science fiction. The legacy was carried forward by Fantastic, an American fantasy and science fiction magazine. “The ’80s saw these magazines close down and science fiction survived through children’s magazines. Writers and translators started writing science fiction for kids’ magazines. There was a visible aversion to this genre of literature by big editors and publishers. This continued for 20-30 years. Now, there is a much-needed change.”
Where does Bengali science fiction stand today? Addressing the issue in the context of children’s books, Debojyoti Bhattacharya said: “The period following the ’60s witnessed the Emergency, Naxal movement and the formation of Bangladesh. The three events were like a blow to the spine of the Bengali community.” He went on to suggest that there was resistance to change. “The biggest example is the anti-computer protests that Bengal saw back in the day. What role does science fiction play in our society? Science fiction creates a model for the future; it shows us enormous possibilities, of dark or light. And somewhere science is linked with some layers of fear as far as incorporating science fiction in literature for adults is concerned. To put it into perspective, right now we are concerned with AI and its adverse effects. And this fear, triggered by science fiction, in some way, translates into rejection. The consequence: Many writers are forced to work in disguise. They take a roundabout route to reach the masses. They target the actual readers of young-adult fiction and enjoy visibility through their work published in magazines like Anandamela, Sandesh and Kishore Bharati.”
Author Goutam Mondal spoke about the need for more dedicated shows/stories on science fiction, drawing reference to Professor Shonku and Ghanada, who have had an influence on several generations. He said: “We need more publications in Bengal to come forward and come up with dedicated science fiction series. The ones that are being written now deviate from what we have grown up on… the imagination, the thought process that formed the base of science fiction then is missing now. I don’t think many of these can even be called proper science fiction, especially in the children’s section. That’s not to say that writers today will base their work on technology from back then. That would be off-putting for new-age readers. We just need to have more mature writing, like the authors had back then. The West has an impressive culture around science fiction for kids.”
Author Anushtup Sett highlighted the role of social media. She said: “The reactions we get on Facebook are not reflective of what the actual responses could be. There is a vast world beyond Facebook. Today’s kids live by technology, the phone and the Internet. When a science fiction novel gives them a peek into future possibilities, it becomes relatable because they are already so tech-savvy. My experience tells me kids still love this genre, especially when combined with action and thriller. But yes, at times, authors do not get to hear from these actual readers because many of them may not be using social media.”
As the conversation veered towards the quality of science fiction pieces being created today, Bhattacharya brought the spotlight back on the mainstream-versus-sci-fi debate. He said: “Some quality work is being created but somewhere the battle is to make this genre at par with mainstream literature. For that, we need to have more authors and readers.”
Ghosh spoke about how science fiction has become mainstream literature in China and how that has influenced the country’s economic progress. Meanwhile, Bhattacharya stressed that citing fears that scientific advancements are a bane to one’s livelihood needs to stop in mainstream discourses. The session also acknowledged the need for more sci-fi story-reading sessions in educational institutes and bookstores to shape young minds.