On the off chance that you don't have time for an 800-page masterpiece, Vikram Chandra has published a new book, a masterpiece of a different sort weighing in at a slender 272 pages. Geek Sublime (Graywolf Press) is in part a memoir of Chandra's years supporting himself as a computer programmer while he worked on his first novel. He loved writing code; he found the work satisfying and intellectually challenging. Like a lot of programmers, he understands that coding is an art as well as a science, but as an accomplished literary artist he also understands the limitations of that line of thought. The book is subtitled "The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty," and Chandra is interested in exploring the parallels between code and art. His conclusions, however, are nuanced and sometimes surprising. He believes, for example, that programmers should not compare themselves to creative writers, because code can accomplish so much more than prose ever could.
The book begins with Chandra recounting his history with computers. He also gives us a bit of a programming lesson, all the way down to logic gates and machine code. He resumes the programming lesson in one of the final chapters, but before that, in the middle, he goes into a deep discussion of Indian aesthetic philosophy. The journey begins with Sanskrit -- the "eternal language," so called because its syntax and vocabulary has not changed at all in two thousand years, largely thanks to a detailed grammar written by the linguist Panini around 400 BC. Panini, it turns out, wrote a kind of compiler for the Sanskrit language, establishing the rules we still follow today. He goes on to discuss two Indian guru/philosophers whose nuanced conceptions of aesthetics make Aristotle and Kant look like Laurel and Hardy. It's heady stuff, and all new to me.
I read Geek Sublime with great interest not only because of my admiration for Chandra's fiction, but because I too made my living as a programmer before I sold my first novel. I nodded along as he extolled the pleasure of seeing your work compile and run -- seeing your effort become something today, not years from today or never, as is often the case for fiction writers.
Kepler's in Menlo Park has asked me to interview Vikram Chandra at a special in-store event on Friday, October 3, at 7:30pm. The event is part of the Peninsula Arts & Letters series. Tickets are available in the store or at Brown Paper Tickets. $25 gets you admission plus a copy of Geek Sublime. (If you already own the book, you can buy an admission-only ticket for $12.) Come if you're a programmer with an interest in art, or an artist with an interest in code -- or neither!