Geek Sublime by Vikram Chandra
For most of us, computers and the programs that run on them are tools, designed to make our lives and work easier. But for the developers who build this software, the lines of code that underpin what we see on screen are not just practical – they can be beautiful. ‘Beautiful’ code is concise, structured and linguistically flexible – as such, many programmers see their work as a creative practice, akin to creating music, or literature.
Award-winning novelist Vikram Chandra is thus in a unique position, having worked as a programmer alongside his writing career. In Geek Sublime, Chandra’s first work of non-fiction, he recounts his early career as an Indian student in New York, and his gradual turn to coding as both a way to make money and a relief from fiction: ‘Write some code, and it either works or it doesn’t.’ From here, Chandra launches into an impressively broad history of computer science, its transition from egalitarian beginnings to modern Silicon Valley’s issues with race and gender, India’s post-colonial emergence as a programming powerhouse and the evolving thinking around code as a matter of form as well as function.
The book’s second half takes on a decidedly more academic tone, as Geek Sublime evolves into an exploration of the concept of beauty and consciousness through the perspective of pre-modern South Asian philosophy and Sanskrit, a language with such strict structure and grammar that parallels can be drawn with modern programming languages. Chandra’s thesis covers so much ground as to lose focus at times – a diversion into tantric sexual practice, though fascinating, feels unnecessary – and casual readers might struggle with the book’s heavier sections. For readers of philosophy and literary theory, however, Geek Sublime offers a valuable contribution to the discussion around art in the age of technology.
Alan Vaarwerk is the editorial assistant for Readings Monthly.