Amitav Ghosh
The Calcutta Chromosome (1996)
Reviewed: 1998-01-26

The good thing first. In these days of ever larger tomes descending on the reader, The Calcutta Chromosome is a compact book. It also won the 1997 Arthur C. Clarke Award for the best SF novel published in the UK. I guess that means there must be somebody who liked it.

I'm not certain what tipped me off, but after the first 50 pages (of 300) I knew that Ghosh was fundamentally a mainstream writer and that the novel at hand would at most be an excursion into SF. Whatever the exact reasons, the book kept yelling "mainstream! mainstream!" at me. And so it didn't come as a surprise that the fantastic elements were few, partly nonsensical, or just confused.

On three time lines, and from a few more different points of view, sometimes nested several levels deep, we approach a mystical secret. In 1898, Dr. Ronald Ross discovers the disease vector spreading malaria. About a hundred years later, in our time, Murugan, a man possessed by Ross's work, explores the events of the past. An unspecified few decades in the future, a former colleague of Murugan investigates the latter's disappearance. Lovers of conspiracy theories may take a liking to parts of the book, although there is no world-spanning plot in the end.

Lifeless characters that evoke the Eight Deadly Words from rec.arts.sf.written, "I don't care what happens to these people"; a narrative structure overly complex for the meager plot; a central idea that keeps dangling in front of the reader like the carrot leading the donkey but remains hardly examined in the end; some confused, possibly out of this world events that neither the protagonists nor I understood. Ghosh isn't a notable stylist either, the prose itself is not more than adequate.

It is a bad sign when you wish that any one of the characters is soon going to die in order for something interesting to happen. Roughly at the middle I was considering to throw the book into the trash can, and I probably would have done just that if the novel hadn't been that short. Whatever literary merits The Calcutta Chromosome may possess, I completely missed them.

Thoroughly disappointing.

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