The Beast With Nine Billion Feet
Nine Billion is an extremely valuable contribution to the world of science fiction, both for its distinctive Indian flavor and for transcending geographical particularities to embrace a sense of universality. It is to Menon’s credit that the novel can be read without feeling socially or culturally alienated while being intimated of the pleasures of pondering over improbables for their own sake.
Menon’s future is neither one of shock (distopia) nor awe (utopia) but something in-between, both pragmatic and experiential, a lived reality that his characters already inhabit and to which we are invited.
My debut young-adult SF novel was published in November 2009 by Zubaan Books, an imprint of Kali For Women, India’s first feminist press. The novel achieved a number of firsts but the one I relish the most is the fact that it made me Zubaan’s first male novelist. Zubaan has published some fine authors in recent years– Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Shashi Deshpande, Mahasweta Devi, Payal Dhar, Shama Futehally, Indira Goswami, Gita Hariharan, Manjula Padmanabhan and Vandana Singh to mention a few– and I’m thrilled to join their company.
All right. I can’t delay this any more. What is the novel about?
The novel is set in a near-future India; specifically, Pune 2040 AD. Thirteen-year-old Tara and her seventeen-year-old brother Aditya are dealing with the grim legacy of their father, Sivan, once a celebrated geneticist but now on the run from the law. Everything changes for the better when Tara meets Ria and Francis, siblings who claim to be from Sweden. However, their sinister mother Mandira, who’s an old associate of Tara’s father Sivan, has more than a casual interest in Aditya’s technical talents. As Tara, aided by the siblings, uncovers Mandira’s deadly plot, Aditya, increasingly under Mandira’s sway, discovers he’s carrying a secret, one that’ll unravel all that he holds dear. At stake is nothing less than the future of the beast with nine billion scurrying feet.
Writing the Beast was a lot of fun. The best part was getting to know my characters. It was also interesting to think through how linguistic ability and longevity might be connected. I was able to do my ‘umble bit to bring the word ‘quakebuttock’ back into circulation. I got to use a German word made-up by my friend Herr Professor Rene Mauér, namely, ‘Klatschschmierschnauze’ (~ smack-snout-smear) to describe what happens when a pie says hi to a face. Precision is important in these matters.
You can check out Paul March-Russell’s rather detailed wonderful review of the Beast. Other nice things have happened to the Beast. It was short-listed for the 2010 Vodafone-Crossword Fiction award and the Carl Baxter Society’s Parallax Prize. Amina Yaqin at SOAS has used it as a resource text in her Literature of South Asia class. It’s the subject of a doctoral thesis, and a research paper or two. I received touching fan mail from a few teenagers. Some of the novel’s more implausible technologies such as the use of Norris-Pompei focusing for listening with one’s eyes (yes, that’s right) turned out to be not so implausible after all.
Thanks for the time. I hope you will enjoy the novel.