An alternative title for this book might have been ‘Vikram Chandra’s personal interests’. Now a full time novelist, he funded the early stages of his career by fixing computers and writing software, and the fascination continued even when he was able to give up the day job.
Both software programmers and fiction writers are on a quest to create something beautiful, and in Geek Sublime Chandra asks whether beauty means the same thing to both parties, and whether coding can be described as art in the same way as writing, painting or other creative pursuits. At least that’s the premise. And it does get off to a good start: with an engaging opening section where Chandra, a formally educated fiction writer, explains how he got (entirely self taught) into coding. Computer code is cutely demystified with the help of Lego models. Rants about the rudeness of elite programmers and burnout frequency seem a little off-topic, but are entertaining and maybe provide context. So far, so good, we’ve set the scene, even if we haven’t got far towards answering the question.
The lengthy middle section moves onto more diverse topics, starting with a dissection of Sanskrit grammar rules (complex but exhaustively logical) and their contribution to programming languages. It’s an unexpected diversion, but still feels like we’re moving in the right direction. Likewise for the explanation of how Indian writing and theatre create the feeling of beauty by provoking emotional resonance. It was harder to see the relevance of a discussion of gender and Sanskrit poetry, and by the time we got onto Tantric philosophy I was completely lost.
Upon reaching the closing chapter I was still waiting for the ‘a-ha’ moment. Happily for the frustrated reader, it all comes together at the last minute. The main conclusion is that coding is hard, and so it cannot be compared with fiction writing. I have to say I was disappointed; the way the book is set up leads one to hope that it is going to end with a grand theory of universal elegance or something like that. The actual ending makes the whole premise seem slightly spurious. On the other hand, there’s plenty of interesting stuff in here. Chandra’s interests are diverse, and there are surprises in every chapter.
Any Cop? Yes, although it doesn’t quite do what it says on the box. Eclectic and unusual; mainly worth reading if you’re into programming, writing and/or Indian philosophy.