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the Complete Review
the complete review - autobiographical / computers


Geek Sublime

Vikram Chandra

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To purchase Geek Sublime

Title: Geek Sublime
Author: Vikram Chandra
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2014
Length: 210 pages
Availability: Geek Sublime - US
Geek Sublime - UK
Geek Sublime - Canada
Mirrored Mind - India
Geek Sublime - France
  • US/UK title: Geek Sublime
  • India title: Mirrored Mind
  • US sub-title: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty
  • UK sub-title: Writing Fiction, Coding Software
  • India sub-title: My Life in Letters and Code

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Our Assessment:

B : fascinating bits and pieces, if not quite a coherent whole

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Business Standard . 14/1/2014 Ajit Balakrishnan
The Caravan . 1/2014 Anjum Hasan
The Economist . 8/2/2014 .
Financial Times . 28/2/2014 Carl Wilkinson
The Guardian . 26/2/2014 Steven Poole
The Hindu . 31/5/2014 Aditya Sudarshan
New Scientist . 24/2/2014 Justin Mullins
The NY Times Book Rev. . 24/8/2014 James Gleick
The Observer . 22/3/2014 Nicola Davis
Outlook . 20/1/2014 Shabnam Minwalla
Prospect . 2/2014 Philip Ball
Sydney Morning Herald . 4/5/2014 Owen Richardson
The Telegraph . 15/2/2014 Iain Pears
The Telegraph (India) . 10/1/2014 Aveek Sen

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus; many very impressed, especially by the code-explanations, but some think it's a bit of a mess

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mr Chandra's book also serves as an excellent ethnographic study of computer programmers (.....) This is the sense in which Mirrored Mind is a coming-of-age book: the coming of age of Indian writing in English in a book that gently and subtly nudges us as Indians to examine the written and unwritten rules that our missionary school education has embedded in us." - Ajit Balakrishnan, Business Standard

  • "If Chandra had decided to only write about computers, this would still be a very illuminating book. (...) Driving these investigations is, quite straightforwardly, an attempt to recover an Indian self. (...) Chandra’s curiosity in Mirrored Mind about "premodern" selves is genuine, and the quest described in the book a valid one. But it is perhaps an impossible quest." - Anjum Hasan, The Caravan

  • "The result is partly aesthetic analysis, partly an investigation of linguistic theory, partly a history of programming -- and an entirely original work. (...) The proposition in Geek Sublime is simple, even if the lengthy explanations required to get there are not." - The Economist

  • "An illuminating, genre-defying exploration of a world that, despite the ubiquity of computers, most people (many coders included) find alien and don’t fully understand." - Carl Wilkinson, Financial Times

  • "Chandra is brilliant at technical exegesis (...) but he also casts a sceptical eye on modern coding culture, especially its generalised misogyny. (...) The conclusion here is that art and code are, as Stephen Jay Gould said of science and religion, non-overlapping magisteria." - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "Vikram Chandra’s new book is frustrating and analytically confused. (...) One starts to wonder why, when everything is so interesting, one is growing bored. (...) Chandra leans on the subject of coding, really only to add ‘reverberation’ (not meaning) to his narrative about fiction writing. But, whatever may be one’s theory of literary narrative, the internal logic of narration forces attention to meaning. Chandra is therefore led to follow and be misdirected by his evasion." - Aditya Sudarshan, The Hindu

  • "The book is broad and idiosyncratically engaging. (...) Geek Sublime may garner a cult following, as Tao did 40 years ago, perhaps among the increasingly influential cultural group of Indian programmers. But, while it may inspire, Geek Sublime will frustrate in equal measure." - Justin Mullins, New Scientist

  • "His new book is an unexpected tour de force, different from anything he has done before. (...) Chandra offers a far more complex view of clashing cultures than Snow ever did. He has lived inside more than just two." - James Gleick, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Chandra argues against the beguiling notion that writing code is in itself a truly artistic pursuit. The result is a compendium of delight in which Chandra delves with relish into the bowels of technology and the intricate mechanisms of linguistic suggestion, drawing on his own experiences to create an extraordinary thesis that is part autobiography, part crash course in coding and unfailingly an ode to language." - Nicola Davis, The Observer

  • "Mirrored Mind, however, is not just about coding and writing. Chandra has a lot to say about many things—some trite, some thought-provoking. (...) Interesting though they may be, Chandra is unable to weave these asides and digressions into a cohesive narrative. (...) The effect is that of a haphazard clothesline flapping with unconnected thoughts." - Shabnam Minwalla, Outlook

  • "(H)is book is not so much an attempt to align coding and fiction writing in parallel as it is a literate and insightful meditation on two activities that both retain an air of mystery to non-practitioners." - Philip Ball, Prospect

  • "(W)hat Vikram Chandra has written offers something fresh and stimulating on every page." - Owen Richardson, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "The effect of code, like that of literature, goes beyond language to reconstruct consciousness itself. Formal elegance in both is almost secondary: it exists, no doubt, and can be analysed. Chandra persuasively suggests that the true beauty lies in what it does to us, allowing access to the unfathomably vast, and changing the world." - Iain Pears, The Telegraph

  • "The tone and character of this book’s intelligence -- equally at home in fiction, theory, history, logic and mathematics, but resistant to being pinned down to any one of these -- also brings to mind the writings of the poet and scholar, A.K. Ramanujan" - Aveek Sen, The Telegraph (India)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       As the inability of his publishers to settle on a common subtitle might suggest -- the variations on offer are: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty (US), Writing Fiction, Coding Software (UK), and My Life in Letters and Code (India) -- it's a bit difficult to pin down exactly what Vikram Chandra offers with Geek Sublime (a title the US and UK publisher could at least agree upon, though in India they went with: Mirrored Mind). A successful writer of fiction between two cultures (India and the United States), Chandra also supported himself as a programmer -- writing computer code -- for a good stretch, and this book offers a good deal of interesting background on his own becoming-a-writer and his early work (the focus is, alas, only on Red Earth and Pouring Rain, as, for example, Sacred Games doesn't fit the narrative any more). It's also an examination and comparison of code and creative writing, offering a good basic introduction to what code actually is (in the sense of how it gets computers to 'work'), as well as an interesting look at Sanskrit grammar and poetics -- as a sort of bridge between his discussion of code and fiction-writing.
       Speaking from experience -- and understanding how little understanding there generally is of how computers do what they do -- Chandra offers a fine little primer on code-basics, presenting the different levels of 'computer language', from machine code to assembly language to the programming languages which are most commonly used in writing programs. He also makes clear what a mess much code is -- and why. He doesn't romanticize the 'beauty' of code; functionality is the key, and functionality is often lost (or at least gummed up) by the layers of not-so-good-code that tend to quickly accumulate in software (think: anything that Microsoft has ever put on the market).
       He digresses on different aspects of computer/coding culture -- and his Indian background makes for an interesting corrective to the American image of the pseudo-macho boys'-club of coding, noting that while it has been (and continues to be difficult) for women to enter this male bastion in the US, in India a far greater percentage of those studying and working in computer science are women. He quotes another writer who notes that the data suggests:

The gender imbalance in the United States seems to be specific to the country; it is not a universal phenomenon, as it has been presented in the scholarly literature.
       Another cultural-interpretation point he makes is the claim that music and coding/mathematics are closely related:
These connections seem culturally encoded to me, specific to America -- I've never heard of Indian programmers or mathematicians having a special affinity for music, apart from some being passionate listeners.
       Chandra devotes considerable space to Sanskrit, the classical Indian language that Panini codified, as it were, in his Ashtadhyayi (ca. 500 BC) -- 3,976 rules that: "allow the generation of Sanskrit words and sentences from roots, which are in turn derived from phonemes and morphemes". (Computer-)code-like, this foundation has served the language well -- and also kept it very stable, to the point where it is often difficult to date Sanskrit texts, because there are far fewer variations in the use of language than, for example, in the (relatively) rapidly evolving ones of, for example, Europe. As he notes:
The Ashtadhyayi is, of course, an algorithm, a machine that consumes phonemes and morphemes and produces words and sentences. Panini's machine -- which is sometimes compared to the Turing machine -- is also the first known instance of the application of algorithmic thinking to a domain outside of logic and mathematics.
       Yet Chandra treads carefully with what can easily be taken for a bridge between (machine) code and poetry or fiction, even as a great deal of art has been produced in Sanskrit -- something one has to be careful of conflating. He's not sold on the idea that rules and the processes of programming can lead to the creative flights found in fiction and poetry -- and so he also doesn't try to sell the reader on it (most readers presumably have their doubts coming in, and would need convincing). Writing is also a process for him -- but one very different from that involved in (computer) programming:
For my own part, as a fiction writer who has programmed, thinking and feeling as an artist is a state of being utterly unlike that which arises when one is coding.
       He understands losing oneself in the process of coding -- but maintains it is very different from losing oneself in writing creatively. Ultimately, he separates the two cultures, pointing out where the superficial similarities in fact function quite differently.
       It's an interesting argument, and there's certainly a lot of interesting information on offer here; Geek Sublime is worthwhile for its introductions to/overviews of code and coding and Sanskrit alone. But for a book with such carefully built-up pieces it also feels surprisingly out of focus. It's not buggy, bloated code, but it is digressive -- bits stuck on that don't fit very comfortably with the rest; the whole comes to feel oddly unwieldy.
       An interesting look at writing -- and at code --, coming from an interesting personal angle (Chandra's Indian and American background, and his experiences) used to good effect, Geek Sublime may be flawed as a whole but is certainly worth it for many of its bits and pieces and insights.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 August 2014

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Geek Sublime: Reviews: Vikram Chandra: Other books by Vikram Chandra under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Author Vikram Chandra was born in 1961. He divides his time between India and the US.

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© 2014-2015 the complete review

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