Saturday, Jun 22, 2024 | Last Update : 11:42 AM IST

  Books   17 Mar 2024  Book Review | Scientist plays God in laboured science fiction

Book Review | Scientist plays God in laboured science fiction

THE ASIAN AGE. | SHASHI WARRIER
Published : Mar 17, 2024, 1:06 pm IST
Updated : Mar 17, 2024, 1:06 pm IST

The writing is patchy: It’s good most of the way, though often self-indulgent, sometimes turgid, and occasionally just plain wretched

Cover image of Acts of God
 Cover image of Acts of God

The beginning of this book brings to mind Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with visitors from outer space and wholesale destruction and so on. The resemblance disappears, if not in a puff of smoke, very soon, indeed. Both are mystifying at first, but Hitchhiker is fun from page one, while Acts of God only hints at it in the early stages, more about which in a few paragraphs.

The god here is not God but a mad scientist, a Dr Krishna, who, after being caught doing something he shouldn’t have, prefers to be called Dr K. His partner in crime, a female, one Dr P, reacts to being caught by being drunk as often as possible, while Dr K himself withdraws into a cloak of subservience behind which he sneaks back to playing with simulations or universes.

All this happens in a bright, new, Utopian/dystopian open society — no borders, no secrets — in which a scientist discovers “simulations”: universes that can be created but end at a specific point. The scientist discovers also how to interfere with these simulations, bringing them to untimely ends, and so on.

A bumbling private detective, one P, Manjunath — not remotely as funny as Inspector Clouseau, unfortunately — and his slightly less deluded assistant, Heng, though living in these simulations, figure out that all is not as it should be. They have little hope of doing anything about it, because, after all, they’re up against the mad scientist god… Sounds like geeky heaven, especially when you come across juvenile sexually-oriented phrases such as “Simulatus Interruptus”! But the character I liked most is an AI-enabled “device”, a wall stuck with the twin burdens of incompetence and guilt, bound to fail at what it does in the manner of Sisyphus.

Even the most devoted of geeks would find reading this book hard work, and I’m no geek. I read the book end to end and had to revisit large parts of it before I even began to suspect that it all fell into place, before it revealed that it’s actually an extremely intelligent work. And even then I couldn’t be sure I’d got the whole thing, because there are bits that don’t fit. Dr K uses electronic tablets to monitor simulations but each run of a simulation ends with the computer-generated question: “Process terminated. Logger detached. Reprint? (Y/N)”. Printouts? In an open society in the far future? No true geek would ever think of printouts in the future!

The writing is patchy: It’s good most of the way, though often self-indulgent, sometimes turgid, and occasionally just plain wretched. For example: “Black Baltic water tightened its belt around the sinking vessel. In slanted fear, the titled ferry-goers clustered around the tip and watched themselves sink.”

The writer is clearly very intelligent, but the one thing that runs through the book is a streak of narcissism that should be clear from the fact that the preface is preceded by sections entitled “Storage instructions for this book” and “Allergen Warning”, both of which involve the author and neither of which make sense unless you’ve read a large part of the book.

Here’s something from the acknowledgments that came in useful: “This is a pared-down version of Acts of God and I have had to kill many darlings that sit in a document titled ‘Lovely Things I Have Removed Under Duress’.” I think perhaps that he didn’t kill enough darlings. Writing this book might have been a labour of love, but reading it certainly requires a love of labour.

Excerpt (page 33, para 4):

Sipping bourbon, Dr K growled at the monitoring tablet.

Not only was he simulating a universe (very wrong), he was simulating many (very very wrong). He had privately figured out how to intervene in running simulations (smart but wrong), and thus was interfering with ongoing simulations (extraordinarily wrong). He was also terminating them before their natural conclusion (outrageously wrong), and he had used his observations to identify laws governing Simulatus Interruptus (smart).

 

Acts of God

By Kanan Gill

HarperCollins

pp. 349; Rs 399/-

Tags: book review 2024