Books : reviews

Vikram Chandra.
Geek Sublime: writing fiction, coding software.
Faber & Faber. 2013

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 29 January 2022

Vikram Chandra is an award-winning literary novelist, yet for years he worked as a professional computer programmer. Programming paid his way through graduate school and when his first novel was published, he gave up freelance computing work to write. But the impulse to program never left him.

In his extraordinary new book he looks at the connection between the two seemingly opposed worlds of art and technology. Programmers are obsessed with elegance and style, just as writers are, but do the words mean the same thing to both? Is there such a thing as ‘the sublime’ in code? Can code ever be called ‘beautiful’? And is it a coincidence that Chandra is drawn to these two ways of thinking?

Geek Sublime is an idiosyncratic history of coding, exploring logic gates and literary modernism, the machismo of geeks, the striking presence of an ‘Indian Mafia’ in Silicon Valley and the writings of Abhinavagupta, the 10th–11th-century Kashmiri thinker. A book of sweeping ideas, part-technology story and part-memoir, Geek Sublime is a heady and original work.

Chandra writes novels, and also writes software. Here he explores the fundamental differences between these two forms of writing, and whether software developers, in striving for ‘beautiful code’, can really be considered to be producing ‘art’.

In this discursive writing on the topic, we learn why Chandra believes the answer to be ‘no’. In particular, the process is so different. Writing is hard; it is a conscious anguished-filled ‘hell’, where every word is sweated over. On the other hand, although programming is also hard, it is hard in a different way: it requires a depth of concentration, and the developer can get lost in the process, unconscious of time passing, trying just one more thing. (Oh, how I recognise this description!) He doesn’t say whether the writing of this book was more like the hell of fiction, or the flow of programming.

We also learn a lot about the differences between Indian and Western philosophy and approaches to art. And one thing I learned was how the Indian philosophy explains how one can enjoy reading about something that one might never enjoy directly experiencing:

[p114] The pleasure of rasa comes from the meta-experience of experiencing oneself experience the stable emotions.

That is a sentence that will definitely resonate with programmers!

An interesting different look at programming, and art, through a non-Western philosophical lens.