I was thrilled to talk with Rajat Chaudhuri, author of The Butterfly Effect (September 3, 2018, Olive Turtle, Niyogi), which Scroll.in describes as a novel that “blends mystery, eco-fiction and a Russian doll narrative.” Truly this story is a wild ride, with brilliant and Ballardian descriptions and actions of a future world that I don’t think we want to be in, but which are vibrant and alive as well as deadly. The story jumps around the map, beginning in India.
A self-obsessed Calcutta detective who goes by his last name, Kar, an enigmatic internet cafe hostess in Seoul, and a hotshot geneticist laboring away on a top-secret corporate project: these are just a few pieces in the puzzle that need to be put together to explain a world sucked into the whirlpool of the butterfly effect.
In the decaying capital city of a near-future Darkland, which covers large swathes of Asia, Captain Old – an off-duty policeman – receives news that might help to unravel the roots of a scourge that has ravaged the continent. As stories coalesce into stories – welding past, present, and future together – will a macabre death in a small English town or the disappearance of Indian tourists in Korea help to blow away the dusts of time? From utopian communities of Asia to the prison camps of Pyongyang, and from the gene labs of Europe to the violent streets of Darkland – riven by civil war, infested by genetically engineered fighters – this time-traveling novel crosses continents, weaving mystery, adventure and romance, gradually fixing its gaze on the sway of the unpredictable.
The genre-blurring tale left me hanging on edge as I discovered a new world through Rajat’s imagination, and I would recommend this book highly. I talked with Rajat about his new novel. He explained that The Butterfly Effect is a transcultural novel, which crosses borders while also switching back and forth in time. The major settings of the book are India (present and near-future Calcutta), England (London and southern England), South Korea (Seoul and other places), North Korea and China (minor setting).
What motivated you to write this novel?
The book has an eco-dystopian theme centered around the dangers of genetically modified (GM) crops and the inherent threats of this technology. It also has a climate change backdrop in a near-future setting. The double whammy of climate change disaster and a GM experiment gone horribly wrong is what triggers the disastrous circumstances portrayed in the book.
I have been an environmental activist for many years now. I have been a climate change advocate representing civil society groups at the United Nations in New York, and have spoken and written about climate and environment issues in international and national forums and publications. I am also a past contributor on sustainable consumption issues to the World Human Development Report published by the United Nations Development Program in New York.
This activist background motivated me to translate my learning to my creative work, especially through the vehicle of a novel. The so-called realist novel, because of its debt to the Enlightenment, has shied away from engaging with Nature and issues involving large collectives, and focused instead on what John Updike calls an “individual moral adventure”. This focus, Amitav Ghosh points out in his seminal work on climate change, The Great Derangement, has ghettoized all other kinds of writing, placing them in genre fiction.
I, like some others, feel the time has come to change this as climate threats have been growing in exponential proportions and dangerous technologies are being pushed into our lives and food plates without proper testing and without the use of the “precautionary principle,” which is a foundational principle of the Biosafety Protocol. There are, however, writers in the West, like Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Liz Jensen, Ian McEwan, Barbara Kingsolver, and others who have been engaging with climate environment and disaster issues. In my country, these issues are rarely handled in creative fiction.
All of the above influenced me to write The Butterfly Effect. Above all, the challenges and difficulties of creatively engaging with the unimaginable aspects of worldwide disaster caused by human actions in the Anthropocene have driven me to write this book.
This book is not far-future science fiction about intergalactic wars, nor will you find teleportation here. Rather, this is speculative fiction of a very possible future, amplified for the purposes of creativity and dramatization.
How do you feel climate change and/or environmental crises play a part in the places in your novel – and how do you feel that they might be unique compared to the rest of the world?
My setting is both the developing and developed worlds (India, Korea, UK, etc.). Each of these places will be affected by a runaway bio-technology disaster (as in my book), but impact will vary according to preparedness. Climate change, which is a backdrop for the book, will affect all these places in similar and different ways. So in my book, we find hot summers in England, fertile crop-growing regions in Tibet, the disappearance of island nations like Sri Lanka, and the flooding of Japan. These are backdrops in the story. As we all know and have begun to see with increasing regularity, climate change will have unpredictable consequences from increased storm activity, desertification, extreme temperatures, and crop failures, among several other crises.
The uniqueness of the affected region in my story is that it covers large parts of Asia and essentially constitutes the developing world. Because of a lack of preparedness, vulnerable populations, limited resources, corruption, the business-as-usual mentality, lack of awareness, and the attraction of high-consumption life styles, these regions will definitely be worse off once a worldwide disaster begins to unfold.
I also want to mention Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan incidents, which are rare (hard to predict) incidents of devastating consequence. A Black Swan incident – such as the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster – is very hard to predict but can be understood in retrospect. Just as the Fukushima disaster and meltdown was the result of a chain of incidents that were too rare for the designers of the reactors to foresee, so in this book we find a concatenation of rare and almost unpredictable events. The bottom line is: Change high-consumption lifestyles and stop employing dangerous and unpredictable technologies, even if for welfare. There are always simpler solutions.
Is there anything else you want to tell us about the story?
Environmental disasters are often borderless, and so is my story. This is why the plot travels from one place to another and the characters are drawn from many countries.
The book benefited from a number of international fellowship grants (Korea, UK, Scotland) which helped me research these places and people and set up the scaffolding of the novel. There is a long section in the book which has to do with North Korea, and important characters from that country, and I feel what the story is telling us is that risky technologies become bigger threats when they are contested by powers which lack the checks and balances of a functioning democracy – corporate power and totalitarian regimes to give you two examples.
This book is also about the tug-of-war between reason and faith, or reason and its absence. This duality is portrayed through the character of the detective Kar, who is a man of reason led into strange circumstances where faith and magic fight a losing battle with the all-consuming power of science. It is in the character of the detective that we find a reflection of this age-old contest.
Thank you, Rajat, for the in-depth background of The Butterfly Effect.
Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs Dragonfly.eco, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change(Routledge). Mary lives in the lower mainland of British Columbia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.