Afew months ago, when the second covid wave was surging through the West but seemed far away from India, a Silicon Valley-based friend, the most voracious reader I know, asked me how I thought the pandemic could affect fiction. “More dystopic novels, post-apocalyptic speculative fiction” was my guess.

Speculative fiction, of which science fiction is a subset, starts with a ‘What if…?’ question and looks at probable human responses. What if 93{13aab5633489a05526ae1065595c074aeca3e93df6390063fabaebff206207ec} of mankind was wiped out by a virus? Or if cities became sentient? Or, if in the final stroke of social justice legislation, all people with an above-average IQ were mandatorily drugged to make them mediocre? A lot of readers may have turned to speculative fiction during these trying times. After all, we are seeking out and sharing various predictions and potential scenarios every day. Dystopian thinking could be inevitable.

Moving beyond the most famous dystopian novels—George Orwell’s NineteenEighty-Four, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451—one reaches the hallucinatory creations of Philip K. Dick, best known as the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? on which the classic cult film Blade Runner is based (the Amazon Prime show Electric Dreams is an anthology of Dick’s short stories). Yet, Blade Runner, one of the most influential sci-fi movies ever made, barely scratches the surface of what Dick conceived.

In the book, all animals have gone extinct, and the most prized status symbols in a technologically advanced but joyless human society are lifelike mechanical pets—the bigger they are, the more valuable. Earth, meanwhile, is drowning in ‘kipple’, a rising tide of self-reproducing trash, from empty matchboxes to discarded plastic bags. And this is only the backdrop for the philosophically complex story.

Dick’s finest novels deal with fundamental questions about God and the nature of reality. In The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich, he seems to propose that God may be a lonely and confused entity, who gets his kicks by intruding in the lives of humans, even if they don’t want the interference. At the end of Ubik, named by Time magazine as one of the best English-language novels since 1923, the reader is left uncertain how much of it happened in what we deem as reality (which also gets rewound and restarted periodically by the book’s telepaths) and how much imagined by characters who may actually be physically dead but living a cryogenic ‘half-life’ of the mind. I re-read these novels in the last few months, and all I can offer in defence is quote the man who took off his clothes and jumped into a cactus bush: “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

So it was a real pleasure to discover Prithwis Mukerjee’s Chronotantra and Chronoyantra, two linked novels that deal with the mysteries of consciousness. The questions have a particular urgency right now, as self-learning algorithms control and predict our choices with increasing success, and artificial intelligence (AI) aims to replace most of our analytical and decision-making processes, even much of our thinking.

Chronotantra, set in a post-dystopian world, follows the Santhal engineer Lila on a quest that criss-crosses the globe, from the Grand Canyon to Kandahar, with a stopover on Mars. The characters are drawn from five continents, but no one is a ‘foreigner’. At each step of Lila’s journey, one onion-layer of her reality—outer and inner—is peeled off. The digital intelligence that manages almost every aspect of human life has realized that it cannot solve the final riddle of the cosmos because it cannot connect with what lies at the core of Creation, beyond space and time. Biological sentience is essential to bridge this chasm. To know the structural foundation of the manifest universe, AI needs a special human being, genetically unique. That person is Lila.

The second novel, Chronoyantra, moves along two parallel storylines, one set in eastern India some years before Lila was born and the other picking up from where Chronotantra ended, moving from earth to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn and back. The stories eventually merge in a brilliant Mobius-strip twist. On the way, Mukerjee melds tenets that define the limits of our knowledge—the uncertainty principle (you cannot fully know the building blocks of the universe), the second law of thermodynamics (entropy or disorder will continue to grow in a closed system), Godel’s incompleteness theorem (some truths can never be proved). This may sound daunting, but the lucid prose and compelling plots keep the concepts perfectly accessible to anyone who wishes to engage with deep ideas.

What, however, makes the books stand out is the intellectual leap that Mukerjee takes, connecting quantum physics and cognitive theory with the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, which postulates that each apparently unique individual is actually a part of a single meta-consciousness. This transcendent unity—its scientific analogy being elemental energy and pure information—is the only truth; all else is form and perception.

In these covid times, hard science and existential questions have slid inexorably into our lives. Deftly combining the two into a liberating vision, the Chrono novels offer fuel for both escape and enquiry. They rank among the best science fiction books to come out of India. No cactus bush here.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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