AI in Mumbai: Review of Anil Menon’s The Inconceivable Idea of the Sun

A whimsical collection that resists all tropes and genre classification while being embedded in a very recognisable Indian context

August 05, 2022 11:59 am | Updated 02:04 pm IST

Commenting upon some of the more “magical” elements in his writing, Chinua Achebe once memorably retorted that it was his conception of reality and it was simply larger and more capacious than that of his interlocutors. This sense of a larger, more capacious reality has pervaded much of the writing we refer to as “magical realism” or “fabulism”: from Borges to Ben Okri, from Gabriel García Márquez to Namwali Serpell. And it is also the sense that pervades Anil Menon’s collection of short stories and fictional essays (and the one non-fiction piece), The Inconceivable Idea of the Sun.

Menon’s previous offering — the 2016 novel, Half of What I Say — was set in a grittily dystopic but believable near-future, and focused upon themes of powerful shadow-armies and technological surveillance. The stories in The Inconceivable Idea of the Sun are also anchored within a plausible near-future — a none too appealing one — but they are altogether more whimsical and closer to the fabulist tradition than their predecessor.

The Inconceivable Idea of the Sun; Anil Menon; Hachette India; ₹599

The Inconceivable Idea of the Sun; Anil Menon; Hachette India; ₹599

Recognisable context

Perhaps the most anchored of these stories is the one with which Menon opens the collection, ‘The Man Without Quintessence’: the story deals with an entirely networked and monetised society, and explores our hopes — and fears — about what being “off-grid” would look like in such a society. He makes a connection that genre work has been exploring of late: inability to access the digital world as a form of disability (‘a digital paraplegic’ is the term that the narrator uses) and the consequences that flow from that.

While the core of the story may seem somewhat familiar to genre readers, what sets it apart — indeed, what sets apart the collection as a whole — is its embeddedness within a very distinct and very recognisable Indian context: the story is set in a Mumbai suburb and the city’s AI is called ‘Balasaheb’. There is even the necessary sedition arrest in the course of the story!

Identity crisis

As we go deeper into the book, however, the anchor grows slack, and Menon pulls us further into a fabulist world. ‘As Clear As’ involves a disorienting change in the narrator’s point of view midway through the story, calling into question both the narrative viewpoint and the idea of identity (the question of identity also preoccupies characters — and readers — in ‘The Mind-Body Problem’, later in the volume).

‘Invisible Hand’ takes us directly into creation myth, with Shiva and Vishnu deciding to swap their roles of destroyer and preserver. Hijinks, of course, follow.

‘Into the Night’ comes hurtling back to earth, addressing the awkwardness and pain of a generational gap through the lens of new technology. ‘God’s Own Country’, set in, well, god’s own country, explores lost childhood love in a manner reminiscent of Bridge to Terabithia: it feels fabulist all the way until the end, when it isn’t.

‘The Robots of Eden’ takes another familiar genre theme — mood-enhancers that compel human emotions into a continued, if unstable, equilibrium (think Ted Chiang’s stories) — and places it in an unfamiliar context: a broken marriage and interracial communication.

Two of Menon’s strongest stories are found later in the collection. ‘Love in a Hot Climate’ is another one of those fabulist-until-it’s-not stories, with wry linguistic humour reminiscent of Rushdie in Haroun and the Sea of Stories or Sukumar Ray’s works: a young man, determined to marry the woman of his dreams, ends up in the office of a bewildered Milton Friedman (!) on a temporary visit to India (this visit, Menon assures us, actually took place). And then we have the eponymous story, ‘The Inconceivable Idea of the Sun’, which was my favourite.

Blurring the lines

Its premise is that old chestnut: what would the world be like if one piece of writing — your favourite piece of writing, which changed your life — never existed, and explores it in the context of a deliciously infuriating book-hoarding couple.

In part whimsical, in part hilarious, in part tragic, and in part moving, ‘The Inconceivable Idea of the Sun’ perhaps brings together all that Menon is trying to do in this collection: articulate that “expanded sense of reality” to the reader and simulate that seamless movement between dimensions, between reality and unreality, while blurring the lines between the two.

Readers of contemporary speculative fiction in general, and of Indian SF in particular, will find much to enjoy in The Inconceivable Idea of the Sun. In an age in which genre books are often marketed through a catalogue of tropes, this volume defies genre classification, and resists tropes altogether: after all, into what box can you place a collection in which an academic essay on The Ramayana rubs shoulders with the very SF concept of emotional telepathy?

The combination can be disorienting at times, but to a reader determined to apply themselves, it is rewarding.

The Inconceivable Idea of the Sun by Anil Menon; Hachette India; ₹599 

The reviewer is the author of ‘The Wall’ and ‘The Horizon’.


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