Chronotantra




An excerpt from the review by Sandipan Deb, published in The KGP Chronicle, from IIT Kharagpur.



Prithwis Mukerjee’s brilliant debut novel Chronotantra is “hard” science fiction, that is, it is grounded in solid scientific soil. Yet, it soars, because, blending a superb technological imagination with Vedantic philosophy, it seeks to find an answer to questions that have intrigued humankind through the ages — the mysteries of consciousness.

The story of Chronotantra begins in the year 2150. Towards the end of the 21st century, the world had descended into chaos, national and local governments had collapsed, and mankind had regressed to medieval barbarism. A small cohort of techno-entrepreneurs, who controlled 80% of global wealth, then established 39 technopolises across the world, self-sustaining enclaves of peace, monitored, managed and effectively controlled by ultra high technology that provide a comfortable lifestyle for those who have the license to live there. In fact, all administrative decisions and even policy making in these “techno”-s have been handed over to artificial intelligence (AI). Outside lies the wild world of “externals”, denied entry into the technos through powerful force fields.

Chronotantra’s protagonist is Lila, a Santhal tribal woman, who had been brought to the Chandilis techno on the Chhotanagpur plateau as a child under unusual circumstances, and grown up there to become a brilliant engineer. When we meet her, she is 23, working on a project that could revolutionize mining for the human habitat on Mars. We follow her over the next 26 years, to TransCaspia on the shores of the Caspian Sea, Hangzhou in China, across the plains and into the craters of Mars, Taosville on the edge of the Grand Canyon, Gandhar in erstwhile Afghanistan, and finally back to the Rajrappa Hills where Lila had been born. It is now revealed that she is uniquely qualified to fulfil a cosmic destiny.

Mukerjee takes the reader, with Lila, on a journey that begins with the questions about digital technology that bother us today — such as constant surveillance and privacy — to the deeper ethical, philosophical and even existential issues that are bound to confront humanity in the years to come, perhaps sooner rather than later. As AI develops, and vast databases armed with incredible processing power interact with one another, will we see the evolution of a new species that is wholly digital, and with which humans and other biologicals will have to share the world?

In Chronotantra, as this digital species acquires the sophistication to move out from the virtual to the physical realm, it finds itself asking the same questions that humans have wondered about for a long time. Is there another world that lies beyond the obvious dimensions of space and time? ....

As the story unfolds, we — along with Lila — are drawn deeper into the mysterious quest that only a few chosen ones in the Chronotantra world are privy to. At each step, Lila peels off one more onion layer of her reality — both outer and inner. The vast all-analysing digital intelligence that manages almost all aspects of human lifehas come to recognise its limits —it can never unlock the final mysteries of the cosmos because it can never connect with the intelligence at the core of Creation, which lies beyond the fundamental laws of entropy and space. Only a human being can do that, and that too, a very special human being, genetically unique. That special person is Lila.

For her tryst with the Infinite, Lila travels to the Rajrappa hills of her birth, to the temple of Chinnamasta, a particularly macabre form of Goddess Kali, who, however, represents a sublime message of losing one’s identity and merging it with the universal one. Lila’s body is implanted with sensors that will stream live data of her ecstasy of enlightenment to the digital superstructure, for analysis. Chronotantra ends in an almost literally earth-shattering climax (the word “climax” here has more than one meaning).

Mukerjee has pulled off a major feat. Chronotantrais a thrilling and wonderfully imaginative story. And it fulfils its extremely high ambitions in terms of its philosophical scope. It is also exceptional in several other ways. One, I have never read a more technologically sound novel by an Indian author. Mukerjee, the brilliant engineer, has thought through every technical detail of his imagined future, from the sustainability infrastructure of a technopolis to grocery transactions in the 22nd century. Two, he explains the digital revolution and its impact on society, with a lucidity and simplicity that anyone who has ever used email can comprehend. Three, he manages to compress difficult metaphysical (and physics) concepts in simple conversations between characters in a manner that any reasonably intelligent person can grasp.

But most important of all, the connection between a collective digital consciousness and ancient Indic philosophy is an extraordinary intellectual leap that Mukerjee performs with masterly confidence and elegant logic. It is this that makes Chronotantra quite unique in the world of speculative fiction.



Vector illustration credit: Vecteezy.com