PREMA MANMADHAN

Anil Menon belongs to that rare breed of science fiction writers. He talks to Prema Manmadhan about science fiction writing and his first novel for young adults, 'The Beast With Nine Billion Feet', just released

Will you be alive in AD 2040? Then perhaps you will catch this ‘Beast with Nine Billion Feet'! Yes, it is the title of science fiction writer Anil Menon's first book (Price:Rs.295). Just released by Young Zubaan/Penguin, at the Bookaroo Children's Festival in Delhi, in November last, it has a host of other characters, the kind that you and I are familiar with too.

For young adults

The 'Beast with Nine million feet' is a young adult science fiction novel and school and college kids can relate to it fine. “I like writing about the near future,” says the Virginia-based Malayali who grew up in Mumbai. Well, this near future is AD 2040 and the ex-IT professional treads on very familiar ground. Just look at this paragraph from the book, for instance: ‘The supercomputers were attacked 24/7 by viruses, worms, silicon prions, spambots, snoops, whackers and all kinds of bad karma. In the old days, an army of sleep-deprived human programmers would periodically lurch out to fight the horde. But these days, the computers had been given artificial immune systems similar (in principle at least) to the immune systems of living things…'

And his novel is peopled by seemingly ordinary folks, but who live in a period that's not very far off.

Some people in the book are from ‘Nurth', (short for New Earth), which is 160 km inside the Arctic Circle, artificial island, around for just around 40 years, most of whom are immigrants. But those born there are called novae, (the new ones) and Anil mentions languages like ‘Samskritham,' ‘Malayalam'. The story is set in Pune. Indian characters, Tara, Adithya, Sivan, Malini, Vispala, Soda Kaka become part of your world as you read on.

Anil turned to writing after nine years of life as an IT guy. Writing science fiction is no joke for it has to be realistic to a certain degree while coining a futuristic scenario. Too much of sci-fi will put off the readers. Anil went about switching professions in a very systematic way. He took part in a Clarion West intensive six-week workshop for writers preparing for professional careers in science fiction and fantasy in 2004, and only then ventured out on his own. “There is a technique, a technology to turn writers into professionals,” Anil says. In India, science fiction writers are rare, though a woman wrote one in 1905 - Rokeya Sukhawat Hussain's novella, ` Sultana's Dream '. “I asked for a Malayalam science fiction novel in a Kochi store and he gave me the Malayalam translation of one of Isaac Asimov's books,” says a surprised Anil. He is keen to help people who want to be science fiction writers too, to create a community interested in this genre. Indian characters are rare in science fiction today.

So, it was a gratifying experience for him to be part of a three-week in residence Speculative Fiction workshop for science fiction writers-to-be at the Kanpur IIT a few months ago. With Anil, were Vandana Singh and Suchitra Mathur, science fiction writers who handled the classes at the workshop. “There were 16 participants who were selected, of which seven were women. In fact, one of them was a Malayali, Suneeta Balakrishnan. The oldest was a 55-year-old woman and the youngest was just 17 years old. They had to write stories of 3,000-5,000 words and then, they were analysed. “They had lessons on how to handle criticism, how to approach editors and also how to handle rejection, which is very important. That six of the participants' stories got sold to international magazines is a matter of great happiness to those who organised it. Moulding school kids to become writers of science fiction is another of Anil's missions. He took a few days classes at Shanti Bhavan Boarding School for the underprivileged, in Baliganapalli, Tamil Nadu.

Tough climb

It's not as if a book contract is signed out of the blue. In science fiction territory, you have to grow by inches, first writing in magazines, then entering bigger projects. Anil went through the grind for a couple of years. His story ‘Standard Deviation' was awarded an Honorable Mention in the Best Fantasy and Horror section in 2005. Anil was also nominated for the Carl Brandon Society's 2005 Parallax Prize for his story, ‘Archipelago'.

In The ‘Beast with Nine Billion Feet', “every chapter has a hook.” That's how its author describes it. Feedback from teenagers that it's a ‘cool read' has Anil all excited about its international release later, maybe later this year or next. He can be contacted at iam@anilmenon.com

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