An Interview with Anil Menon

Anil Menon
Pix courtesy : The Hindu

Techie takes pay cut to promote Sci-Fi for Indians.

Desi Sci-Fi and intensive workshops for Indian writers, how does that sound together? Meet Anil Menon, a techie who is giving his whole heart to the Desi-SF project which hopes to inspire more Indian writers into reading Desi-Science Fiction and writing it as well. Here is the chat Techgoss had with him.

Techgoss (TG): Tell us about your techie education, career and background. What is the software you have used in work so far?
Anil Menon (AM): I did my Bachelor’s in electrical engineering from M. S. University in Baroda, then a doctorate in computer science from Syracuse. I specialized in AI software, or more precisely, probabilistic algorithms. Let me give an example. Say you are in a store, ready to check out and there are three queues you could choose, all with different numbers of people. The shortest queue is run by a sleepy-looking chick, the longest queue has a nimble old-timer who looks likes he’s been doing it for ever, and you can’t make out who’s managing the middle queue. So which queue do you pick to stand in? I got paid to design software that would worry about things like that. A lot of database design– the internal query processing algorithms– has these kinds of problems, so I bugged around distributed data processing for a while. I still work in software, but mostly on a referral basis. Software changes every two or three years, so it’s hard to list all the stuff I’ve used. But currently, it’s mostly with scripting languages like Ruby and Python and client-side web tech like Ajax. It’s a lot of fun. Sort of like playing chess, except that there are extra pieces, the board is drawn all wrong, and the other clown is playing checkers.

TG: Since you have a background in software, what in your opinion is the future of software, say, 40 or 50 years from now?
AM: Well, let me put my crazy hat on. Software is not really a human activity. I’d mentioned it was like chess. It really is. We used to think chess was something only humans could do, but we now have programs that are much better chess-players. Chess is an easy game to automate. The amazing thing is not that machines can play chess; the amazing thing is that humans can play it at all. Software programming is very similar. My expectation is that in a few decades, the world’s best programmers will be programs. Humans will mostly have to specify what needs to be done. Code generators will take care of the rest. Fifty or sixty years from now, they’re going to look back and marvel that so many humans were tooling around as coders.In the 1940s and 50s, the word “computer” used to refer to the female operators who helped out with ballistic computations. You could walk down the hall and ask that pretty computer out on a date. Now of course “computer” means something completely different. But in another 50 years, when computing becomes ubiquitous, most people will probably forget what the word means. Computers? Programming? What’s that? After all, why would they need to remember? For example, when everything is wireless, do you need to remember there were things called “wires”? My guess is that words like “digital”, “software” and “computer” etc. are transient, make-do words.

TG: How did you come to write? Tell us about how you evolved into Young Adult SF?
AM: I fell in love with SF early, and it was one of those messy, moist, get-a-room-dude emotional affairs. I still read a lot of SF, but also read other things. In fact, I’ll read anything, including coupon offers and bar codes. A reader is basically a caterpillar on its way to becoming a writer. Eventually, this particular caterpillar made the transition. It’s true my novel “The Beast with Nine Billion Feet” is young adult SF, but I don’t really see myself as specializing in the genre. I like to write all sorts of stuff. It’s just that some stories are best told from a YA perspective. Friendship stories, for instance. Teenage friendships are really fascinating. Growing up, they’re our first relationships where choice plays a real role. No one can force you to be a friend. It’s a choice. And Indians have always been nervous about unrestrained choice. So it’s doubly interesting. The Beast is a friendship story, and I thought it’d work best if I told it from a teen’s perspective.

TG: You have said, “Authors have to be entrepreneurial, not just creative.” What is the difference?
AM: I use Dr. Saras Sarasvathy’s distinction. Creativity is mostly causal; that is, you have a goal, a destination, and you try to figure out the best way to get there. It’s analysis driven. The idea is that to the extent you can predict the future, you can control it. In contrast, entrepreneurship is mostly effectual; that is, you see a bunch of roads, pick one, and see where it leads. It’s not analysis driven, it’s action-driven. The idea is that to the extent you can control the future, you don’t need to predict it. Here’s an example. Say, there’s a lit fest in town. A causal person would try to figure out if so and so editor will be there, or this or that famous person is coming, etc. They’ll try to predict if the lit fest is in line with their goals of becoming a famous writer. However, an entrepreneur will go there and see what happens. Maybe you’ll meet X who’s Y’s girlfriend’s father’s agent. Maybe you’ll get a chance to sit on a panel and talk about desi SF. Maybe you’ll meet your future spouse. Maybe the free bhajias are to die for. Who knows. Go and see, for god’s sake. If you want opportunity to knock, make sure you have a lot of doors.

TG: Why are utopias so boring? Is that why there are so many dystopias in SF?
AM: I think it was Kim Stanley Robinson who said that utopias are only boring for people with full bellies. He’s got a point. If you’re living in a Bangladeshi refugee shelter or have the Taliban going around tugging at beards to make sure they’re real, then yeah, an utopia would probably sound really interesting. But in my judgment, most utopias are longings not for future worlds, but past worlds, usually the author’s imagined past. That may explain it. As regard to the many dystopias: Most SF writers live in the western world. The West is flush with a lot of goods, both material and spiritual. Almost all their problems are now perceptual, not material. You go to a place like Netherlands or Switzerland, and it’s like you’re in utopia. It *is* utopia. Clean roads, beautiful people, rosy-cheeked children, happy animals, houses built of diamonds, the works. Their SF writers have no choice but to write about dystopias. Anything else would be realism.

TG: What’s your favorite joke about engineers?
AM: Well, it’s a bit long, but here goes. Based on a prototype, Lockheed Martin wins a contract to build an air-collision detection system called the Box. Everybody at the company is thrilled. But the prototype’s designer points out that the 2-year deadline is far too short to properly build, test and QC the Box. He wants four years. He gets the extra time. Four years roll by, and the designer asks for a few more months. At Mach speeds, says the designer, a few screws seem to be coming loose in the Box. Seven years later, Lockheed Martin gives him an ultimatum, and he reluctantly agrees to a live trial. The planes take off, gather Mach speeds, everybody is waiting on the ground, bated breaths, etc. etc. The planes scream toward each other, there’s a great big crash, and all that’s left are a pair of complementary peanut packets.

Oh my God!” cries the CEO, turning to the designer. “Nothing could be worse than this. We’ve lost every investment dollar!
“At least we still have the Box,” says the designer, retrieving it from his jacket. “Good thing I waited.”
TG: What kind of pay cut have you taken to pursue writing? Would you advise a talented writer to take up writing for a living?

AM: I took a 60-70% pay cut. The question of course is 70% of what. Well, of a sum large enough to make sure I still get live comfortably. Software is really well-paid and during the dot-com, people were obscenely well paid. I don’t really have to worry much. And I don’t have kids, so that’s one less worry. For young writers: I wouldn’t advise anyone to do anything full time. Find something fun and profitable to do. Make that your cash cow. Then everything else, including writing, is moo.

TG: Why did you select Pune as the background for your book?  Why not Bangalore?
AM: I know Pune and the surrounding area well. I also wanted a city that reflected the personality of one of the main characters (Tara) but not the other (Adi). Pune was a good fit.

TG: Who are your favourite authors?
AM: It’s a huge list since I’m an indiscriminate reader. At the moment though, my favorite authors are the writers I met at the 2009 SF workshop at IIT-K. The group also includes a few people who were there in spirit as well. As far as I’m concerned, they can’t write fast enough for me.

TG: Which are your favourite movies?
AM: Blade Runner. Sholay. Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. Anything with Simran in it. There, I said it.

TG: What is the writing/publishing scene like in India now?
AM: It’s really good. First, we’re incredibly lucky in our culture, our history, our narratives and our people. Second, the industry’s numbers look good. The Indian media has grown at a compound growth rate of around 10% over the last four years, and stands at something like 15 billion dollars. Publishing, which has been growing at the rate of about 5% over that interval, accounts for about 40% of the market share. That’s unbelievable. The population demographics are also in our favor.

TG: Tell us about your SF initiative in India with Vandana Singh and Suchitra Mathur in IITK this summer
AM: The initiative was more like a probe. The idea was to get a sense of the interest out there in an intense, immersive, 3-week workshop on speculative fiction. Three *weeks*. Two-day and 3-day workshops have their uses, but if you want to transform people, you need to put them in a pressure-cooker. And we wanted people to find us rather than the other way around; that way we’d get enterprising writers. So we kept things low-key, didn’t hype it up too much and so on. We got an ass-kicking batch. These writers are going to make a difference. I’d like to claim credit, and often do, but a lot of it was pure, dumb luck.

TG: Do you intend to repeat this workshop in the coming years? The venue?
AM: Yes. At least for the next couple of decades, if possible. We are not sure about repeating the venue. We’re looking for sponsors. From our side, we can give access to cool breakthrough talent, lots of buzz, a chance to build a brand not to mention sheer fun. It won’t be the Vandana-Suchitra-Anil show either; we’ll be drawing upon the best talent out there to teach at the workshop. Whoever sponsors us will get a stake not just in a workshop but in the future of speculative fiction. P. Lal’s Writer’s Workshop in Kolkota discovered writers like Chitra Divakaruni, Vikram Seth, and Amitava Ghosh and so on. Workshops are great places to find talent. Come talk to us.

TG: Anything else you would like to say that we haven’t asked you?
AM: I’d like to hear from interested writers, sponsors, people with ideas, issues, suggestions, room & boarding for 16 hungry authors :)… Join us. Send me a mail.

Anil is not alone, he is with two other equally strong advocates for the Desi-SF in this endeavor; the popular SF author Vandana Singh and the IITK faculty member Suchitra Mathur. Read Anil Menon’s record of the first ever Workshop for SF writers in India held in 2009 June at IIT Kanpur at this link.

Or simply mail him for details at

Originally published at Tech


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