10 August 2015

Review: The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery by Amitav Ghosh

P.S. My review of the Doctor Who audio drama Damaged Goods, sort of by Russell T Davies, is up at Unreality SF. You should read it, the story is very good and I was pretty happy with the review too. It is actually tough to be unremittingly positive, but it is rewarding to pull it off!

Finally, Mondays will be the day that I just stay on top of what I've recently read. Which hopefully I will actually do!

Hardcover, 311 pages
Published 1997 (originally 1995)

Borrowed from the library
Read July 2015
The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery
by Amitav Ghosh

I've been working on a project regarding Indian science fiction recently. The amount of Indian sf written in English is staggeringly small, and perhaps the two most frequently cited members of the genre are Manjula Padmanabhan's Harvest and Amitav Ghosh's The Calcutta Chromosome. In one sense, The Calcutta Chromosome's claim to sfness is very small; there's a frame story set in the future that features an advanced computer, but most of the novel is set in the year of publication (1995) without any fantastic technology, and much of that is taken up with characters telling each other about historical events.

On the other hand, The Calcutta Chromosome is more sfnal than most sf; it's all about science and how we understand it and how it works. The whole central conflict of the novel is one of science vs. "counterscience," two distinct ways of seeing the world that stand in opposition to one another, but also feed off one another to survive. Like a lot of reviewers (apparently), I'm left a little bewildered by the ending, but I think I liked it on the whole, and I think what Ghosh was trying to do with the uncertainty makes sense.

I was surprised what an engaging book this was. This sounds mean to say, but a lot of literary fiction-- and Ghosh is primarily a literary writer even if this is a genre work-- is not fun to read. But The Calcutta Chromosome is; Ghosh makes one character telling another character about a Victorian scientist for chapters on end absolutely delightful! I also really liked the way that this book jumped from narrative thread to narrative thread. There are a lot of them, but the way the story unfolds both backwards and forwards (and maybe even sideways) is done with great skill, and keeps the reader moving along at a fair clip. A fascinating book.

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