Coder/Writer Vikram Chandra's Grand Geekness
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this edgy writer has a big idea: that technology and books — those old papery things — share something unlikely.
By Tobias Carroll
You might not expect programmers and literary writers to find much common ground. Vikram Chandra would argue otherwise. The author of (among others) the novel Sacred Games, 53-year-old Chandra has a background that brings together a copious knowledge of literature and history with time spent working with code. And in his new book, his first in nonfiction, Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty, Chandra finds the places where literature and technology converge.
Chandra himself is the product of many modern convergences: He’s an award-winning novelist who’s also written a Bollywood film. He’s a Bay Area writer and coder. This latest work explores some of Chandra’s own roots as a writer and takes the reader through a series of more and more esoteric languages, including intentionally incomprehensible ones with names like Malbolge and brainfuck. He also recounts his own first work and finds the ways that theories of language and theories of code can dovetail. And even more notably, he does this in an entirely accessible way. It’s a fascinating set of histories that Chandra explores here, spanning continents and centuries.
Via email, Chandra discussed the process of writing Geek Sublime, artists who work with code and some of the more esoteric programming languages he’s encountered.
Geek Sublime finds parallels and points of comparison between your development as a writer and your knowledge of code. Did you always have this comparison in mind? And if not, when did it first come to you?
When I first started programming, I was already writing my first novel, and the similarities became obvious right away: Both are iterative processes in which you construct bits of language and try to refine them; you try to construct complexity out of assemblages of small, simple bits of functionality. But I’m wary of pushing the comparison too far. What you’re trying to do with language in literature is very different from what you do in code, and the mental processes that produce each kind of language are very different and specific to the task.
In this book, you discuss the construction of your first novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain. Can you tell us a bit about that structure?
In my mind, Red Earth and Pouring Rain is inextricably connected with my early fascination with computers and code. I first started programming professionally when I was in the early stages of this novel, so I discovered the complexities of code as I was trying to build out the structure of the book.
The thematic concerns and the architectural methods that I used in that first book — networks of connection, the “ring composition” design that nests narratives within narratives, the juxtaposition of disparate time periods — are certainly present in my other work, but those other fictions seemed a bit out of scope in terms of Geek Sublime. I wanted to tell the story of my deepening fascination with computing while I was writing my first novel and use that as a springboard into many other areas. Adding bits about other books would have introduced unnecessary noise into the system — or at least required broadening the interests of Geek Sublime to a degree I didn’t want.
Which artists working with code have impressed you?
- Karsten Schmidt
- Mar Canet Sola
- Varvara Guljajeva
- Zach Lieberman
- Golan Levin
- Heather Kelley
- Anne Spalter
What was the most interesting programming language that you learned about when researching Geek Sublime?
Definitely Clojure, a modern variant of the language group LISP, which is ancient by computing standards — it was first proposed in 1958 by John McCarthy. The name LISP derives from “list processing”; LISP syntax is very minimal, and LISP code is itself made up of lists and features lots of enclosing parentheses. The resulting language constructions don’t look very much like any natural language and appear decidedly odd to programmers who come from other languages like C++ or Java — they will sometimes tell you that LISP stands for “Lost in Stupid Parentheses” or “Lots of Irritating Superfluous Parentheses.” So the LISP family of languages has never been very popular, but LISP refuses to die because the annoyingly minimal syntax makes it possible to do things easily that are very hard or even impossible in other languages.
“LISP weenies” are fond of asserting that “whoever does not understand LISP is doomed to reinvent it,” and it is certainly true that contemporary languages are just now introducing “cutting-edge features” that LISP has had for decades. Programmers who investigate a LISP language often have conversion experiences — which was certainly the case with me and Clojure. I walk around wondering why everything isn’t written in Clojure.
There’s plenty of information to be found in Geek Sublime about the history of language in India and some of the ways in which that has influenced current debates in society. Where do you see these debates headed?
The subcontinent is home to many languages, and Indians live in an intensely multilingual universe. It is quite common to grow up bilingual or trilingual; you speak one language at home, another local language on the streets and a third “link” language in business, education and politics. In the past this lingua franca has been Sanskrit or Persian. It is now English. Hindi is officially the national language, but it is spoken by a minority of the population.
So the politics of language are operative at both the personal and societal level — your ability to speak a certain language gives you access to social mobility and economic growth, but there is also the desire to preserve local literatures, some of which have writing and criticism going back thousands of years. Ideally, there is a mutually fruitful exchange between the local and cosmopolitan.
But there are also unfortunate aspects to the interaction — the regional publishing industries are starved of money because aspirational readers want to read in English; writers who work in English are much more visible at the national and international levels than those who work in regional languages, despite the truly great work that the latter produce. There are no easy solutions, and discussions about these issues often turn into polarized arguments. I’m encouraged by all the translation work that has been happening recently, which is reviving the cross-fertilization among languages that has always been part of the tradition.