The Beast with Nine Billion Feet by Anil Menon
Reviewed by L. Timmel Duchamp
05 February 2010
"There are lots of ifs and buts in the theory. That's science though. Ifs and buts. Certainty is a spice in science, not the main course."—Sivan-bhau, in The Beast with Nine Billion Feet
Ideology, for all its apparent abstraction, tends to be personal; and differences in ideology are often woven into the very fabric of family relations, accentuating other differences. Though many siblings share both "nature" and "nurture," they frequently do not share the same moral values or view the world through the same ideological filters. And so it is with Tara and Aditya, the sibling viewpoint characters in Anil Menon's The Beast with Nine Billion Feet, and, only a bit less so, with Tara's friends Ria and Francis. Offspring of a father who was a celebrated biologist until he was declared a terrorist, Tara and Aditya live in Pune, India, a high-tech city in which genetic engineering and the social and political conflicts it generates have taken center stage. Aditya is a high school student who is illiterate; though he is failing his classes, he is confident that formal education is outmoded and therefore a waste of time, confident in his own brilliance as a biologist. His certainty that literacy and formal education are not only unnecessary in a high-tech world but even useless rests upon his success in creating genetic designs using a sophisticated, graphics-based interface. Aditya lives for the time he can spend using the Illusion tech he services at his part-time job at Bodz. Though most people in Real Life see him as a failing high school student and a non-skilled laborer, when he slips into an Illusion-tech pod at Bodz and meets in virtual space with the mysterious Vispala and her high-powered biotech team, he becomes a genius genetics designer, loved and accepted by his "posse." All he can think about is escaping Pune to live full-time in a world that appreciates him.
Reading Aditya's part of the story, we can easily understand Vispala's attraction: Vispala not only knows and appreciates him for what he "really" is, but also holds the key to a glorious future that she alone is offering him. And given the desperation of his desire to become a full-fledged member of "the posse," it is not hard to understand why the thought never crosses his mind that if his genetic designs are so brilliant, surely he ought to be receiving financial compensation for them in addition to Vispala's praise and the promise of future employment. What, after all, could possibly exert a more powerful influence on someone unable (or unwilling) to meet the ordinary demands of his world than affirmation? Aditya may know Vispala only via Illusion tech, but she represents everything he respects and admires. And since his family and everyone else he knows in Pune fail to appreciate his brilliance, he can only conclude that they know nothing about anything that matters and are wrong about the worth of formal education, literacy, or holding down a job. From the first chapter, Aditya's overriding desire is to leave his own world and become part of Vispala's. And so when faced with the possibility that he will be laid off from his job at Bodz, he sees it as an opportunity rather than as a setback. Vispala, he believes, will care enough at his losing access to Illusion tech to bring him out of Pune and into her world.
"I'll have to talk to Vispala," thought Adi. "I've got to tell her I need help."
Vispala. Her face was a spell, a charm. In her world, these problems—firings, debentures, pension plans—didn't exist. He thought of her face, her slow smile, the way she angled her head, and he was able to push away the threat of Sunny-bhai. (p. 17)
Thirteen-year-old Tara is almost Aditya's opposite. She reads voraciously, she takes school seriously, and she is thoroughly grounded in her family and the physical world around her, notwithstanding that at the opening of the novel her school life is miserable and her family life lacking. She, like Aditya, feels deeply alienated from her world. Her alienation, however, does not result in her ignoring and despising the people around her. And unlike Aditya, Tara does not attempt to compartmentalize the different parts of her life or her relationships. She may escape into novels for comfort, but she never stops trying to make her family relationships work, never stops trying to do her best in school. When Tara meets twins Ria and Francis, who are so socially cool that their friendship redeems Tara's poor social status, her life becomes less miserable and more complicated.
The Beast with Nine Billion Feet tells a story in which the characters' personal lives and relationships become inextricably braided into an ideological conflict pitting two takes on the material consequences of biotechnology in bitter opposition. Formally, the narrative alternates between Tara's and Aditya's points of view and therefore between each sibling's life, fears, aspirations, and relationships. Vispala—who is also Ria and Francis's mother, Mandira—forms one pole of the conflict; Sivan—Tara and Aditya's father, who emerges from exile on a wave of celebrity and at the head of a massive political movement—the other. The sharp outlines of the conflict between the two adults—over the ethics of genetics technology—emerges fairly early in the novel, though the deep personal history of that conflict is full revealed only at the novel's melodramatic denouement.
Rather than staging open ideological debates in the narrative's dialogue, Menon uses the image of the bonsai to exemplify the conflict. On the one side, Mali, one of Vispala's team members (who was apparently trained by Sivan) collects and creates bonsai as a sign of his mastery and control over nature. Vispala refers to them as Mali's "students":
The largest was about the size of a small side-table, and the smallest was the sie of a teacup. Each contained a tiny tree: branched, rooted, leaf-canopied and perfect in every detail. Some even bore tiny fruits. There was a miniature rainforest—or what resembled a rainforest—on an area the size of a large plate. One of the bonsai trees made mewling sounds. Each pot was marked with a small rectangular white card with the phrase "In training since" followed by a date. (p. 74)
Mali claims that a "bonsai gardener is a teacher" and says "Adi, my man, the brain is just a tree growing inside your head" (p. 75). On the other side of the conflict, Sivan says to his daughter, Tara,
"You've seen bonsai trees, no? The same acorn that can produce a hundred-foot oak tree can be made into a tree that fits on a saucer.
Tara nodded. There was something so creepy about bonsai.
"In a way, that's what we do with millions of humans. If humans are given decent human nutrition, a good education, some love, pushy parents and high expectations, they generally bloom, flourish, and reach their full potential. But take away resources, take away a person's freedoms, keep them in ignorance, bind tem with superstition and fear, convince them of their inferiority, then you've created a bonsai person. Incomplete, stunted, denied even the capacity to hope . . . ." (p. 125)
Although the struggle between Sivan and Vispala is clearly ideological and focused on the local politics of Pune, it also involves the struggle for Aditya's soul. Aditya is, in some at-first elusive but then increasingly obvious sense, damaged and not all there; in siding with Vispala, he fully consents to being her pawn and even her hostage. Tara, though siding with Sivan, acts independently; though younger than Aditya, she actively strives to work out the mysteries that surround her and to fight powerful—adult—forces to save her family and her friends. She may lack the powers or strength or calling of a Buffy Summers, but her sense of responsibility and her love for her family and friends impels her to do what she can. Her concern is as much for Aditya, Sivan, Ria, and Francis as it is for her sense of ethics. And so although the narrative distributes itself equally between Aditya's and Tara's perspectives, because one of them is a pawn and the other independent, we can't help but interpret the actions they each take with a significant difference. The apparent balance in the narrative is a trifle disingenuous—and may explain why the obviousness of Aditya's self-deception struck me as unsatisfyingly pat. I also felt that the narrative's depiction of Aditya's relationship with his father—which is a sense is at the very heart of the book—was not well served by this formal structure.
While I especially enjoyed all the many details of life in 2040 Pune, particularly the fabulous pedagogical technology for teaching history (which makes a class hour on the storming of the Bastille a great deal more memorable than a lecture could ever do) and the wonderful mass of quotidian details of Tara's daily life in particular, the ending impressed me most. In the course of the novel's denouement, Menon reveals a terrible irony that casts a new light over the entire story. The revelation not only explains the mysteries encountered throughout, but more importantly, compels a re-evaluation of what we have previously understood. Menon ties up the loose ends a little too neatly for my taste, but because of that ironic twist, I finished the book with the need to continue chewing on it. An interesting, enjoyable novel, if flawed.