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Science-Fiction Novel Intrigues But Falls Short


By Amitav Ghosh

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Avon Books

312 pp., $23

Amitav Ghosh is an Indian-born writer and anthropologist who writes "fabulist," or science fiction. He considers this genre part of the literary mainstream - one that encompasses such varied works as the 2,000-year-old Babylonian epic, "Gilgamesh," replete with mythic elements, and the recent movie "Groundhog Day," where time is severed from cause and effect.

His latest novel, "The Calcutta Chromosome," begins in the not-too-distant future, where Antar, a low-level functionary using his computer to sort through information, discovers the trace of someone he met briefly in 1995, L. Murugan, who then disappeared.

Murugan was obsessed with the life of Ronald Ross, winner of a 1902 Nobel Prize for discovering the life cycle of the malaria parasite. Beginning with claims about "slight discrepancies" in Ross's work, Murugan responds to more extravagant suggestions - that there was a "secret history" of unseen forces using Ross as a tool, directing his research along certain lines and away from others.

Finally, despairing of getting the world to listen, Murugan sets off in search of suspected conspirators who are using methods deeply at odds with modern science - and disappears.

The book unfolds along three time lines - Antar's "now" of the near future, the past of Murugan in 1995, and the far past surrounding Ross's methods of research in the 1890s. The reader is drawn ever deeper into Murugan's theories - rather than the medical inquiry - which only develop partially and slowly.

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As pure fiction, the book succeeds brilliantly. Murugan is an engaging character - an obsessive verging on madness, but also a raconteur with a delicious instinct for life's absurdities in general and colonial hypocrisy in particular. A host of vivid characters vie with him and Antar for our attention, and the split time lines allow for rapid linear development along with a growing web of connections across time.

But as a novel of ideas - which science fiction at its best usually is - "The Calcutta Chromosome" is less successful. Ghosh imagines a wholly different way of seeking knowledge indirectly, based on the supposition that knowing something changes it. But that's hardly new. It's been at the heart of quantum mechanics since the 1920s.

If Ghosh intends to critique science by imagining an alternative way of knowing, he needs a firmer grasp of what science is and a less vague presentation of his alternative. There are writers aplenty in the science-fiction tradition he could learn from. Philip K. Dick wrote countless stories dealing with empiricism betrayed by a metaphysically mad world. George Alec Effinger's "When Gravity Fails" and William Gibson's "Count Zero" exemplify another approach - viewing a world of scientific rationalism through strikingly non-Western cultural and spiritual norms.

Still, Ghosh writes skillfully, the mood is entrancing, the plot intriguing, and the world he creates is rich and enticing.

* Paul Rosenberg, a writer in Los Angeles, is founder of the organization Reason and Democracy.

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