Monday, September 05, 2011

Professor Shonku and the sceptical scientists

[From my Sunday Guardian column]

Leading scientists and science writers often express irritation with what they see as unscientific, “anything goes” sci-fi writing – stories where outlandish scenarios are postulated just for plot convenience, with no heed to the laws of physics and biology. For instance, J B S Haldane and Stephen Jay Gould have written separate essays on the subject of optimum size in living creatures – the fact that a large change in an animal’s size inevitably carries with it a change in shape or form (if the new species is to survive for any reasonable period). When a creature grows in length while retaining the same basic shape, its volume will grow much more rapidly than its surface area: if it becomes thrice as tall, the surface will increase nine times but the weight will increase 27 times. Because of this discrepancy, any abnormal growth would cause problems in body functions such as respiration and digestion.

In this context, both Haldane and Gould make references to fantasy literature. Commenting on the giants Pope and Pagan from an illustrated edition of Pilgrim’s Progress, Haldane good-naturedly points out that if those monsters were ten times taller than regular humans, their body weight would be a thousand times greater, and their thigh-bones would break. “This was doubtless why they were sitting down in the picture I remember. But it lessens one’s respect for Christian and Jack the Giant Killer.”

Gould is more cutting. The creators of many science-fiction stories seem to have no inkling of the relationship between size and shape, he remarks. The miniature people of films like Dr Cyclops and Bride of Frankensteinbehave just like their counterparts of normal dimensions – they fall off cliffs or down stairs with resounding thuds, they wield weapons and swim with Olympic agility…and giant insects continue to fly and walk up walls”. But actually, a two-inch person’s experience of the texture of water and air – and the sheer business of moving about – would be very different from ours. And the wings of an insect several feet long would never be able to carry the creature’s weight.

I suspect Haldane and Gould would not have approved of the adventures of Professor Shonku, one of Satyajit Ray’s most delightful literary creations – especially the story where Shonku travels to Norway and discovers that another professor has captured a number of famous people and reduced them to a tenth of their size. But while I respect the concerns of the real-life scientists, the Shonku universe never fails to enthrall me. Even if these stories don’t stand up to the most rigorous tests applied to sci-fi, there’s no question that they are high-quality fantasy writing, marrying imagination and intelligence. The professor’s globe-trotting also gives Ray a pretext to share information – in his usual non-didactic way – about other lands and cultures with his young readers.

The most recent English translation of these stories was The Diary of a Space Traveller, which has 11 stories translated by Gopa Majumdar (who has also done fine work on Ray’s Feluda tales) and one story translated by Ray himself. Included in these narratives are an expedition to Mars, an encounter with a Chinese hypnotist, a colour-changing sphere that turns out to be a tiny living planet, and reflections on what makes a robot truly lifelike. The writing throughout is gentle and humorous, and Shonku’s references to his many eye-popping inventions (an incomplete list is here) ensure there isn’t a dull moment. Anyone who patronisingly suggests that these tales are "only for children" would do well to note the eye for detail and characterisation, as when Shonku says of his simple-minded servant Prahlad:
Sometimes slow and foolish people can show more courage than clever ones, as it takes them longer to work out the need, or reason, to feel scared [...] I remember one particular occasion very well. A gecko had fallen from the ceiling on my bottle of bicornic acid and overturned it. I could do nothing but watch helplessly as the acid slowly began to spread towards a little heap of paradoxite powder. All my limbs went numb at the mere thought of what might happen if the acid made contact with the powder.
Prahlad entered the room at this crucial moment, saw me staring at the acid, grinned and coolly wiped it off with a towel.
Since most of the stories are told the form of diary entries written by Shonku, it frequently happens that the final entry in a story begins along the lines “I’m shaken by what happened yesterday – it’s a wonder I’m alive to relate this tale”, after which the professor describes the climax to his latest adventure. For the thrill-seeking reader, this is a comforting device – it promises excitement but also reassurance that all will turn out well. These tales are fine examples of the talent for fluid storytelling that served Ray so well in his films. I discovered Shonku for the first time as an adult; I envy my Bengali friends who grew up with him.


  1. Mwahahahahahaha (a Bengali's response).

  2. Yes, I grew up with Shonku and that was wonder-eyed fun. In fact, much before his movies, my first brush with Ray was with Shonku and the stories of "Tarinikhuro" (fascinating stories told by a cool uncle) - get hold of that also if possible. The Shonku book you mentioned was originally named as Byomjatri-r Diary (Byom = space, jatri = traveller), it has so much more fantasy than the English name :)

  3. wish i knew Bengali...all these books sound so fascinating...a translation,no matter how well done, does lose something of the original punch and flavor..

  4. Hope the book retains the original sketches

  5. Jai, you have reason to feel envious that we, Bengalis, had splendid time growing up with these wonderful stories!

  6. Thank you for introducing me to Shonku! Perhaps because I'm not a Bengali, I was unaware of this creation of Ray's - never mind, I shall now go forth and discover!

  7. haha, i just had a raging argument with another scientist about the cross section of a thigh bone (which had some animated demos using straws) and finally won it when i said "who said the giant's thighs are made of human bone? giant thighs are made of monster bone, with titanium threads or somesuch." i think i wore him down with sheer beligerence, but i still think it is silly to assume a giant in a story has to follow the rules human pyshiology. a miniaturized man, yes, that makes sense. but really, if we were to write all sci-fi strictly as per the reigning scientific knowledge, no spaceship or martian would exist