It has always been a central tendency of the human condition to strive for progress. Along the way, mistakes happen, with innumerable such instances in history. Hope being another admirable human trait, we tend to pick up the pieces and move on. But what happens if things go so horribly wrong that the future inexorably descends into abysmal, seemingly endless dystopia?

This is the primary tenet of a lot of speculative literature and science fiction novels, starting from George Orwell’s 1949 classic 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, and even the modern day Suzanne Collins classic, The Hunger Games.

Rajat Chaudhuri’s new dystopian novel The Butterfly Effect deals with yet another set of human experiments gone wrong. In that sense, several characteristics and tropes of dystopian fiction are evident here. This is of course a common occurrence in the evolution of this genre. For example it, is difficult to imagine whether The Hunger Games, published in 2008, would have existed without Stephen King’s The Running Man (1982). But Chaudhuri’s unique and imaginative story structure sets it apart.

An unusual configuration

The Butterfly Effect has a nested structure where both the first and last sections are titled “Captain Old and the Living Dead of the Darkland”, the second and penultimate sections are titled “P.I. Kar’s Korean Adventure”, and so on. Even so, it initially feels like reading disjointed independent stories in the first few sections of the book. That the stories narrated in these sections take place in different timelines and geographical locations pronounces this effect. Chaudhuri’s virtuosity stands out when he later weaves these tales together and we are treated to the artistry of a creative storyteller.

Another striking aspect of this novel is the horrifying believability of the story. But plausibility has its pitfalls. When Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451, which presents a society that burns books and clamps down on intellectual thought, the book itself was banned for promoting “questionable themes”. The truth in it was too close to reality for comfort.

As disjointed as the first few sections are, Chaudhuri heightens the effect by changing his narrative style in each. The first of the “stories” is about a futuristic dystopian world called Darkland, policed by dysfunctional genetically-modified humans and ruled by an authoritarian dictator. This section is painted bleakly, dispassionately and sometimes violently, which must be how the characters themselves feel. Here is a railway station scene where a retired policeman-cum-hired assassin has arrived to receive a mystery visitor:

“The decrepit mass of humanity stirred, gathered their sagging energies and plodded along to the edge of the platform. Behind them they left forgotten bags and walking sticks, empty IV pouches and puddles of poop which Old carefully avoided as a Canadian engine hauling twenty-six rusty coaches chugged into the station. And the world was engulfed by smoke belching from the chimney, which gurgled out of the skylights and the clerestory windows of the centuries old station building, escaping into the moonless night, like black thoughts bubbling out of the ears of a maniac. Who would have guessed that carbonophilic steam desire would be resurrected to patch together a banjaxed population?”

A familiar face

In the next part of the book, where Chaudhuri introduces us to detective Kar and his assistant, in present day Calcutta, the authorial tone and concerns become quintessentially Calcuttan and the scenes warmer, probably reflecting Chaudhuri’s love for the colourful and chaotic old city. This is happening in a bar:

“The patrons got more drunk with each passing minute and a jockey sitting at the next table began to warn everyone about the dangers of betting on horses. ‘This guy, he owned three Mercs man and now you see him, begging near the Indian museum,’ he went over and over again. His friend, an elderly musician, tried to tone him down saying that the world was not interested to know about the pitfalls of gambling while another man at that table began to lament about the deteriorating quality of modern Bengali songs and how the music of yesteryears could make one cry. This last one began to hum a tune.”

When the detective arrives in Korea and travels to the mountains in a later section, the writing becomes poetic and tender, as if Chaudhuri himself regrets the impending doom that is often foreshadowed here. This is also one of the most captivating sections of the book:

“The grass was a fiery green. He caressed it with his hands. The stalks were cold from the night rain and looking closer he noticed little pink flowers peeping out of the wet earth. Somehow they reminded him of the red blooms of blood on the icy mountain pass that Miss Park had mentioned.

As he kept looking at the little flowers, he was enveloped by a pleasant perfume. The flowers were growing bigger, the stalks grew taller, the petals spread out wide, the scent was thicker now, stronger.”

From quite early on in this novel, we get the feeling that the character of detective Kar, who gets an assignment to find a group of lost Indian tourists in Korea, is closest to the author. However there are equally important characters like the geneticist Tanmoy Sen and the enigmatic internet parlour hostess Jiyoo Park in Seoul. That Kar is close to the author’s heart is also evident from the fact that Chaudhuri has imported him from his previous novel Hotel Calcutta, where Kar has his own story, and made him a protagonist in this one.

The scientist in the middle

Sen, however, is the pivotal character in The Butterfly Effect – by my reading the novel is built around him, though there could be many alternate readings of this magic box of narratives. The sections developing Sen’s character, whose quest, so to speak, is for a Holy Grail of genetic engineering, are closely interlinked, while the mood oscillates between self-doubt and hyperactivity, reflecting his inner conflicts.

Perhaps the mood switches also reflect the fact that the narrative here travels from India to England, and between Calcutta and London, both Victorian metropolises, but quite different in character and temperament. There is a Victorian flavour to the London scenes, like one taking place in an old gin-palace, and there are also descriptions which bring Edgar Allan Poe to mind.

“The violinist was smoking a briar. The acrid smell of tobacco had filled the lounge room right up to its crumbling ceiling and with each drag the fire of his pipe glowed even brighter, like the beating heart of an animal wide awake in the abyss of night.”

Chaudhuri’s focus on genetic engineering in the novel is backed by detailed research. An environmental activist himself, the author has taken pains to understand the biotechnological aspects required for the generation of genetically modified organisms. As a scientist, I have to say that his understanding of how modern genetics laboratories and equipments function is authentic. The gene transfer, manipulation and editing technologies described in the book are already a reality. How human beings use these technologies is for the future to reveal, but Chaudhuri’s implicit warning through the vehicle of a novel is to be deeply pondered upon.

One peculiarity of the book is a studied withholding of romantic possibilities and storylines. There are instances where romantic connections begin to manifest themselves, especially between the character named Ujaan and a Korean woman, but the author seems reluctant to venture deeper. It seems this is a conscious choice. Perhaps the author is so intent on making his point that he felt romance would be a distraction, but given that love is universally a signature of hope, it might have given the reader a modicum of respite from the gathering gloom of Darkland. Yet, this gloom and darkness compel us to wonder what the future will be like.

Priyadarshi Basu is a geneticist by profession and an avid reader of fantasy and science fiction.

The Butterfly Effect, Rajat Chaudhuri, Niyogi Books.