A Moment in Indian Science Fiction, pt 1

Recently, I read Anil Menon’s The Beast with 9 Billion Feet, a wonderful foray into genetic engineering and transhumanism, and one of the few (English language, at least) Indian SF books to engage transhumanist themes. I managed a quick email interview with Dr. Menon, so I will share some of our conversation on transhumanism in a subsequent post (his PhD is in computer science, from Syracuse).

For the moment, this quick post is just a thought or two about Menon’s book and the role of transhumanism in Indian scientific culture. I can’t evaluate his entire oeuvre, because I haven’t read the other two books of his that I own. They’re still sitting in my overly long READ ME pile. I’m thinking that pile should have a tag…like the EAT ME snacks in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Maybe with the assumption that I’ll get bigger or older or wiser if I follow the instructions. In any case, I possess his co-edited (along with Vandana Singh) collection Breaking the Bow, which is filled with stories based on the Ramayana, and his most recent book, Half of What I Say. But I haven’t read either, yet. So, this is just a note about The Beast with 9 Billion Feet.

The book refuses to adjudicate between the pros and cons of transhumanism, or rather it refuses to be certain about them. Neither the advocates or opponents of transhumanism come out as the winners, and the reader is given leeway to decide for him- or herself what to think of plausible genetic alterations. There are characters eager to find an evolutionary leap forward for humanity, and even a country where they’ve taken up residence (perhaps something more like political asylum). Some of these promote transhumanist enhancements in their own interests and some simply enjoy the challenge; but others are seemingly more altruistic. At the same time, Menon also recognizes that there may be unforeseen side effects to genetic tampering, as with the   parrot whose lifespan is artificially shortened in an effort to enhance its intellect. I don’t want to say more than that about Menon’s text…you’ll have to read it yourself. One little spoiler: parkour provides an insightful metaphor for technology and for life and thus for transhumanism itself. For a guy who wished parkour had become popular while he was still young enough to participate (despite what an inadequate gymnast I was, as my teammates could attest), that was especially delightful.

Not many years ago, I lived in India and conversations about transhumanism were somewhat hard to come by, even in the elite scientific and engineering communities I visited. But Menon might be riding a powerful wave. At the time–and still today, as far as I can tell–most senior people in India’s scientific and engineering community find promises of mind uploading, genetic enhancement, and other transhumanist technologies to be unlikely at best and grandstanding at worst. But even five years ago there were undergraduate and graduate students who held transhumanist promises in higher esteem. And today there are movements, such as India Awakens, which hope to advance transhumanism in India.

If the Indian population, not to mention the Chinese, were to adopt transhumanist perspectives to the same growing degree as the United States, champions of such visions will have reason to rejoice. For my own part, I’ll continue perching on the fence as best as I can, and trying to understand where we’re going and why.

Thanks to a our email interview, my next post will offer some insight into how Dr. Menon sees the relationships between transhumanism, speculative fiction/science fiction, and India (a set of topics that I’ll be discussing this November at the annual conference for the American Academy of Religion).

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