As a teenager Anil Menon liked solving crossword puzzles that appeared in a Mumbai tabloid. Once, having solved the puzzle, a gleeful Menon used the prize money to pick up a book that was “big and fat and had dinosaurs on the cover”.
The book, an anthology of stories edited by legendary science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, had him hooked. “I knew I’d read something very different from the kind of books I’d normally read — adventure, mysteries, murder mysteries,” Menon says. One story in particular, Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”, intrigued him.
“It’s about a guy who time travels in the past and happens to kill a butterfly,” Menon recalls. “Though the killing of a butterfly seems so minor and inconsequential, it turns out it changes the course of history.”
Years later, working as a computer programmer in the US, Menon, who would always write “little fragments, little pieces” for himself, decided to attend Clarion West, a famous writers’ workshop for speculative fiction (which includes science fiction, fantasy, horror and magic realism) in Seattle.
It turned out to be “one of the great experiences” of his life.
Menon, who was in Delhi for the launch of his first novel, The Beast with Nine Billion Feet, a young adult fantasy published by Zubaan Books, was one of the prime movers behind a science fiction writing workshop held at IIT-Kanpur in June, the first such workshop held in the country.
In desi science fiction, he explains, “there should be something about India, either through your origins or through your content or thought”.
Menon’s stories have appeared in magazines such as Albedo One, Apex Digest and Interzone. The Beast with Nine Billion Feet, set in Pune in 2040, is a story about “friendship and the desire to be free”, aimed at the age group of 16 to 24 years, Menon says.
“He (Menon) has been in the science fiction arena in what is the classical American way,” says writer Samit Basu, referring to the American culture of attending workshops and getting published in magazines. “What I like about Anil’s writing is his ability to change voices very quickly.”
Is there something about India that makes it a fertile land for speculative fiction?
Essentially, India is a pluralistic society, Menon says, and “pluralism is the heart of speculation”.
“We don’t really understand our origins, what has shaped us, the way we are,” he says. “So we all approximate it. We have an approximate sense of being a Hindu, approximate sense of being a Brahmin, of being a Nair.”
How does the futurist in Menon see India in 2060 or 2075? “I think we are going to be very much what we are today — a complicated mixture of people, ideas, possibilities,” he says.