(Please forgive the formatting mess --- I'll be straightening it all out in the next few days. VS.)
Q&A WITH ANIL MENON
Tell us something about yourself --- where you grew up, what caused you to choose writing, and specifically, why speculative fiction?
I was born in Alwaye, Kerala; a little town in the southernmost state of India. But I spent my first six years in Bombay, where my father worked as an accountant with the Outside Audit Department (a sinister and much-feared governmental organization). In 1970, my father was posted to Mwanza, a little lakeshore town in Tanzania, as part of an United Nations aid program. To our extended family, it might as well have been a posting to Jupiter. From the carrying-on of the near and dear, I got the distinct impression that we were not expected to return; it took a few months for the sense of impending doom to wear off. We spent seven years in Africa, and I grew to love the continent and its people. I suppose I even considered myself Tanzanian.
When we returned to Bombay (now Mumbai), I was completely unprepared for the bazaar that is India. The oppressive heat, the babble of tongues, the dubious hygiene, the overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, the manic cheerfulness of people who, if sane, should've been contemplating suicide and the sheer decadent weight of a four thousand year old culture very nearly did me in. But I had two things going for me: (1) the ability to curse in Swahili and (2) a protein-rich diet. The first won me friends, the second defeated my enemies; I managed to survive in this brave old world.
In 1987, I headed out to the United States to pursue graduate studies in Computer Science. I received my master's from SUNY, worked for a few years and then joined Syracuse University's doctoral program in Computer Science. I specialized in evolutionary computation.
After completing my doctorate in 1997, I worked for a series of software start-ups - a trail of adventures more reminiscent of Gump than Gates. The dot-com years were a great time; for unclear reasons, a great mass of geeks got very well paid to play. At work, we built neat but quite useless artifacts, generously spent other people's money, and speculated endlessly about the next generation of products. I would often return home too excited to sleep, too tired to code, and in this twilight state of mind, tap away at my laptop a random act of description, a plot outline or a story sketch. It was intensely satisfying, and I began to see software development as intruding on my writing rather than the other way around.
In 2002, I'd signed a contract with Kluwer Academic for a research book on evolutionary computation. By the time the book was published (Feb 2004), I had completed about 6 short stories, 3 novellas and almost three-fourths of a novel.
It became very clear by early 2003 that I'd have to choose between software and fiction; each is too demanding to be done on a part time basis. In August 2003, I went to the Burning Man festival to contemplate the matter in a setting I was familiar with: 30,000 people squashed together in a ten mile radius, merciless heat, imminent threat of dehydration, bizarre costumes, a gift economy and dedicated to a ceremony involving the burning of a quasi-religious artifact. In short, a normal day in Bombay.
When I returned from BM, I reduced my workload to easy consultant gigs and committed to a full time writing career. The six weeks at Clarion West confirmed this commitment.
I'm sometimes asked why I chose to write science fiction and not, say, English literature, or something really paying, like Sanskrit erotica. I suppose it's partly due to the fact that I'd grown up on an unhealthy diet of rocket ships, ray guns, Plattenerite and the kind of stuff that still informs the plot lines of Stargate SG-1.
But perhaps Kurt Vonnegut said it best. In "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," he has Elliot Rosewater say to a group of SF writers:
"I love you sons of bitches. You're all I read any more. You're the only ones who'll talk all about the really terrific changes going on, the only ones crazy enough to know that life is a space voyage, and not a short one, either, but one that'll last for billions of years. You're the only ones with guts enough to really care about the future, who really notice what machines do to us, what wars do to us, what cities do to us, what big, simple ideas do to us, what tremendous misunderstanding, mistakes, accidents, catastrophes do to us. You're the only ones zany enough to agonize over time and distance without limit, over mysteries that will never die, over the fact that we are right now determining whether the space voyage for the next billion years or so is going to be Heaven or Hell."
In "Fact, Fiction and Forecast," the philosopher Nelson Goodman wrote that we should cease thinking of this world as only one among many possible worlds, but instead, think of this world as containing all possible worlds. There is boldness and magic in such a view, as well as a certain comfort. I count myself amongst the optimists.
Do you think Indian SF has something specific and/or valuable to offer Spec. fiction at large, or do you think it is really the same thing, except with samosas?
To paraphrase Stein, a samosa is a potato patty is not a samosa. It is true that Indian SF is not quite the same as, say, American SF, though the differences are hard to pin down. However, when we read Jorge Luis Borges, Stephen King and Italo Calvin, it is unimportant that we are also simultaneously reading Latin, American and Italian fiction. And when a reader reads my stories, I hope he or she is just reading good fiction rather than good Indian science fiction. What I'm trying to say is that I will defend (but not with my life) the Library of Congress' mealy-mouthed policy on the issue: textual classification is not to be based on geography unless said criterion is an necessary aspect of said classification.
What do you like most about Spec Fic in the West? What do you dislike the most?
I think what I like most is the sense that the future is not pre-determined; that it can be invented rather than discovered. Or to put it another way, the sense that there is no such thing as the future, only possible futures. Choice breeds heresy. As Peter Berger pointed out, 'heresy' comes from a root word ("airesis") meaning "to choose." To write SF is to generate heresies. To my mind, it is this radical aspect of western speculative fiction that is its most attractive feature.
However, very often the futures SF talks about are pathetic pastiches of extinct pasts or na´ve extrapolations of the transient present. For example, think of Dune's setting or Asimov's Trantor. It is as if writers are unable to imagine civilizations other than the ones shown on the History channel or the last issue of Scientific American. Where's our Lolita, The Stranger, Grapes of Wrath, Godaan and Heart of Darkness? Where are our books that need to be rescued from town-hall bonfires? How come our fiction does not frighten, enrapture and enrage the species? At the moment, SF is about as threatening as a bowl of cereal. I am unable to decide whether the problem is a failure of nerve or of imagination. Certainly, it's not due to a lack of talent.
Who are your favourite authors? Include writers in languages other than English.
I'll pretty much read anything, including the warnings on candy wrappers.
Jack London's "The Red One," opened my eyes to what science fiction could be. There was also Lem's "Cyberiad" which played with language in a way I'd never seen before.
Lem's work led me to stylists like Lawrence Sterne, Russell Hoban, G. V. Desani, Anthony Burgess and Geoff Ryman. I've an intense admiration for Hoban's "Riddley Walker"; to my mind, it's the great SF novel of our time.
London's work led me to Le Guinn, Hilbert Schenck, Paul McAuley and a great many other authors.
I love pretty much anything written by Borges, Camus, Dickens, Stephen King, Nabokov and Vonnegut. Recently, I've begun reading a lot of Indian authors. Two recent finds are Kiran Nagarkar's "Cuckold" and Raja Rao's masterpiece, "Kanthapura." I am also fond of Amitav Ghosh's work.
What was your recent trip like in terms of writing inspiration/ material?
Recently, I returned to India after a long time. Six weeks had to make up for ten years of absence. I chose to go at the cusp of the monsoon season, for the monsoon can wash away anything, including regret.
The country was alive in the way I imagine the United States used to be alive in the 19th; squall, baby, dangling umbilical cord and all. A world so alive that Walt Whitman needed to write:
"I was asking for something specific and perfect for my city,
Whereupon, lo! Up sprang the aboriginal name!
Now I see what there is in a name, a word, liquid,
sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient;
I see that the word of my city is that word up there..."
For Whitman, the aboriginal word he was looking for turned out to be "Manhatta." A word that described not just a city, but a continent. Not just a continent, but a people. Not just a people, but a possible future.
For me, that word turned out to be: "rasa."
"Rasa" is often translated as "savor" and that's exactly right, I think. In his Natyashastra, the great Bharata listed eight ways of emotionally savoring the world. It is a word that Whitman would've loved. It's a gross, wet, colored, gustatory word that consorts with alimentary canals and the tongue's papillae. It probably oozes. Rasa is the key to the Indian aesthetic, and I'm hoping it'll unlock a few of my puzzles.
I returned convinced that there is something wild in the emerging India, something with a savage grammar and pulsing chrysalis, something that speculative fiction needs and demands. Whether we term it "Manhatta" or "Rasa" is irrelevant. That it exists to guide the shape of unborn things is the important thing.
Anil's published/ forthcoming works:
1. Standard Deviation; Chiaroscusco, No. 24, April-June 2005.
2. Archipelago; Strange Horizons, April, 25, 2005.
3. Love In A Hot Climate; Tel: Stories (ed. Jay Lake, forthcoming, 2005).
4. Sky Full of Constants; Albedo One (forthcoming, 2005).
5. The Scorching Glass; Fusing Horizons (forthcoming, 2005). Won the 2nd prize in the Ninth Annual PARSEC/Confluence Science Fiction and Fantasy Contest.
6. Vermillion; InterNova (fortcoming, August 2005).