Mirrored Mind / Geek Sublime

  • Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty (Graywolf Press, USA)

  • Geek Sublime: Writing Fiction, Coding Software (Faber & Faber, UK)

  • Mirrored Mind: My Life in Letters and Code (Penguin Books, India)

  • Geek Sublime: Une vision esthétique, littéraire, mathématique (et pleine d'autodérision) du codage (Robert Laffont, France)

Editor’s Choice, The New York Times (USA)
Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism (USA)
Notable Books of 2014, The New York Times (USA)
Best Books of 2014, NPR (USA)
The Best Science Books We Read in 2014, Wired Magazine (USA)
The Best Books of 2014, The Telegraph (UK)
The Best Non-fiction of 2014, Business Standard (India)
Top 10 Tech Books of 2014, Medium (USA)
Best of 2014, San Francisco Chronicle (USA)
The Best of 2014, Sunday Guardian (India)

Vikram Chandra has been a computer programmer for almost as long as he has been a novelist. In this extraordinary book he returns to his early days as a writer, when he was beginning Red Earth and Pouring Rain, and looks at the connections between these two worlds of art and technology. Coders are obsessed with elegance and style just as writers are but do the words mean the same thing to both? And is it a coincidence that Chandra is drawn to two seemingly opposing ways of thinking? To answer his questions, Chandra delves into the writings of Abhinavagupta, the tenth- and eleventh-century Kashmiri thinker, and creates an idiosyncratic history of coding. Part literary theory, part tech story and part memoir, Mirrored Mind is a book of sweeping ideas. It is a heady and utterly original work.

Vikram Chandra is a wonderful novelist and apparently knows his way around an algorithm, too. His new book is an unexpected tour de force, different from anything he has done before… its ambition: to look deeply, and with great subtlety, into the connections and tensions between the worlds – the cultures – of technology and art. The book becomes an exquisite meditation on aesthetics, and meanwhile it is also part memoir, the story of a young man finding his way from India to the West and back, and from literature to programming and back…  Chandra offers a far more complex view of clashing cultures than [C. P.] Snow ever did. He has lived inside more than just two… Programmers feel an exhilarating creative mastery, and Chandra captures it… Then he starts writing his first novel, “Red Earth and Pouring Rain,” with its poet protagonist, and wonders: What makes a poem beautiful? Back he goes across the cultural divide, to the Tantric texts of the first millennium, and the cosmology of Abhinavagupta, in a quest for aesthetics that coding can’t fulfil. – James Gleick, The New York Times Book Review (USA).

The witty title of Vikram Chandra’s soulful, erudite new book, “Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty,” appears to play with a couple of Western cultural touchstones. The ancient Greek Longinus’ “On the Sublime” gave us some of the earliest ideas about what makes great literature, and of course Keats’ most famous lines, if not his most wonderful, are: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”  But this book goes beyond all that. It transcends Western frames of reference to make dazzling connections between technology and art among less familiar social, spiritual and aesthetic traditions of the Indian subcontinent. The result is a marvelous, peripatetic experience that will change the way you look at everything from iambs to your iPhone…  “Geek Sublime” is endlessly fascinating…  Early in “Geek Sublime,” Chandra describes how his fellow writers react when he tells them that, as a budding novelist, he supported himself by working as programmer. It’s usually, he claims, a response that “mixes bemusement, bafflement, and a touch of awe, as if I’d just said that I could levitate.” After you’ve read this book, you may look at Chandra the same way.  – John Wilwol, The San Francisco Times (USA).

This is a difficult book to classify, although only the first few pages are sufficient to realise that it should not, as with Amazon currently, be listed under engineering. Rather, it is a thought-provoking set of linked essays that are part memoir, part analysis of geeks, part aesthetic treatise.  If that makes the book sound a bit incoherent, it is nothing of the sort. It is a delight to read and never prescriptive…  The geek/lit divide is in many ways an update of the science/art debate that has rumbled on since the novelist and chemist C. P. Snow raised the issue in 1959. Chandra’s contribution is to bring in another divide that enables him to see the problem from an entirely different perspective. An Indian brought up in an essentially Western educational system, he was taught that Western literature was superior to his native tradition, and writes himself in “the language of [his] conquerors”. In so doing, he begins to reconsider his, and his culture’s, relationship to the West, a more assertive attitude often associated with the recent rise of the Brics, but which in fact goes back a long way – perhaps all the way to the Indian Mutiny, the setting for his first novel Red Earth and Pouring Rain.  Bringing these two divisions of geek and lit, west and east, together leads to his own reconciliation. It is, certainly, a personal answer, born out of his own experience and life, but his great talent is to make it very much more than that… The process of coding – the intense concentration to produce something that works – is satisfying; Chandra’s description is wonderfully persuasive… 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 (UK).  ***** Five star review.

Chandra weaves a comprehensive understanding of the history, practice and art of programming into a startling fabric that includes a fascinating dose of classical Indian philosophy and his own lifelong creative journey as a writer. Unexpected connections abound…  “Geek Sublime” is instantly essential to any further discussion of of whether computer code can be thought of as the same kind of exercise in creativity delivered by music or painting…  Perhaps most unexpectedly, while exploring the psychology of coders and writers, he manages to integrate the vast legacy of Indian intellectual history into contemporary conversations about the meaning of art and experience. He manages to get as close to the machine as any previous literary inquisition of coding, to explain exactly how computing happens, how ones and zeroes are translated into action, while simultaneously soaring into the delicate ether of the most refined aesthetic spirituality. It is a dazzle, from beginning to end…  Plenty of programmers consider themselves artists, and plenty of writers presume to declaim about programming. But very, very few can comfortably inhabit both worlds with such grace and precision…  There is so much to be fascinated by here… Across thousands of years of history, from the India of his youth to the United States of his professional career, down deep in the nitty gritty of compilers and assembly language and object-oriented programming, “Geek Sublime” tells one coherent story about the creative process and our aesthetic reactions to art… “Geek Sublime” is a wise book.  – Andrew Leonard, Salon.com (USA).

“An ocean in a cow’s hoof print”: this is how Chandra, translating a vernacular saying, describes the proto-structuralist achievements of the Sanskrit grammarian, Panini, in Mirrored Mind. But it is a phrase that might also describe — and Chandra, of course, knows this — his own fictional worlds. This unanxious self-reflexiveness, which shoots out in unexpected directions towards other kinds of intelligence, inventiveness and learning, is the point of Chandra’s genial and uncategorizable new book. It is easy and light to hold in one’s hand and read, yet continually opens up new ways of thinking about the difficult, obsessive processes forming both the skin and the core of creativity and pleasure… The tone and character of this book’s intelligence [is] equally at home in fiction, theory, history, logic and mathematics, but resistant to being pinned down to any one of these…  First, a social history of programming and programmers in India and the United States, rich in human detail and humour, especially on “geek machismo” and the changing roles of women in computing; and second, finely engaged readings of Panini’s Sanskrit grammar and of Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta’s aesthetics, that go deep into the fundamental questions of how we respond to the beauty of art, especially theatre and poetry. Weaving these two modes together, so that they are eventually inextricable from each other, is Chandra’s personal history of reading and writing, and of moving between India and America. – Aveek Sen, The Telegraph (India).

This isn’t your typical tech book. Despite its thin profile, Geek Sublime is unusually expansive and rich. Its concerns are deeply heterodox: the difficulty and joys of coding, Sanskrit linguistics and literary theory, free market ideology, British colonial history, Indians in Silicon Valley, the writing of Chandra’s first novel, suppressed Hindu sects, women’s diminished status in the tech industry (in India, the situation is markedly better). But there are surprising relationships here, and Chandra elucidates them with a supple intelligence. The book ultimately resembles what Chandra describes as his plan for his first novel: “I want a certain density that encourages savouring. I want to slide warp over woof, I want to make knots. I want entanglement, unexpected connections, reverberations.” Connections, reverberations, a density of tangled feelinghe wants dhvani [resonance, reverberation]…  Chandra shows how culture can’t be divorced from technology, because the two exist in a relationship of mutual influence. But what further distinguishes Chandra is that he recognizes why it all matters…  While focusing more on issues of gender and cultural discrimination, Chandra’s book displays this kind of literacy. Sensitive and wise, Geek Sublime is, in the best sense, aware of itself.  – Jacob Silverman, The New Republic (USA).

Chandra, brainy, delving, and spellbinding, delineates the intricacy and beauty of code. . . . As [he] illuminates links between programming and literature in bedazzling elucidations of Sanskrit, linguistics, aesthetics, and Hindu, Tantric, and Buddhist beliefs, he also conducts unique and heady inquiries into codes, ethical as well as binary. Chandra’s creative and elegant meshing of thought and experience, conscience and storytelling nets both the profane and the sublime. – Donna Seaman, Booklist (USA).

A fruitful exploration of computer-age aesthetics, when artists are making use of programming even as programmers consider themselves artists. . . .  An engaging exercise in interdisciplinary thought, both elegant and eloquent. Besides, who can resist a text that works karma, Marcel Duchamp and iterative programming into a single thought? Kirkus Reviews (USA).

A delightful mashup of the art of programming and a postcolonial sensibility…  In a natural language programming syntax, this review would say something like: IF it’s feeding time for your inner geek AND Sanskrit prosody and grammar do not wholly baffle you, THEN go ahead and grok the excellence of this book, ELSE exit…  Mirrored Mind is a delightful mashup in which Babbage-era steampunk meets the post-taxonomic, post-machine sensibility of Anandavardhana (820-890 CE) which is, ironically, a millennium older than Charles Babbage.  The Bollywood song runs interference with the Aristotelian unities, simultaneously disrupting and supporting narrative.  Nick Carter read in childhood meets Edward Said read as an adult…  The mirroring of the Sanskrit tradition and programming is reminiscent of the analogies that used to be drawn between quantum physics and the Upanishads.  Several writers have noted the centrality of artistic elegance in the practice of math, logic and computing.  The critical tradition that begun with Ananadavardhana’s Dhvanyaloka has drawn a lot of attention. But as a coder, Chandra draws these threads together in new patterns and he illuminates them as a professional writer. If Douglas Hofstadter had been a Sanskrit-literate coder, Gödel Escher Bach may have looked something like this. – Pratik Kanjilal, The Indian Express (India).

Fiction writer, computer programmer and linguistic gazelle, Vikram Chandra personally hammers home a nail in the coffin of the two-cultures theory with every work he executes. But in his latest book, Geek Sublime, 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…  above all this is an eloquent tribute to text and its ability to shape our emotions, and rewrite the very world we live in.  – Nicola Davis, The Observer (UK).

Part memoir, part literary-historical criticism, part technical analysis, [Geek Sublime] is a lovely, surprising, sometimes arcane project that speaks both to the computer crowd and the literary one – and makes the point that they don’t have to be separate camps, just as the print/digital divide has begun to blur. Computers and digital texts have material presences, too; literary works operate by structural and grammatical rules that find counterparts in programming languages…  An elegant writer, Chandra would be a pleasure to read on almost any subject, and he covers many in Geek Sublime.  – Jennifer Howard, The Times Literary Supplement (UK).

In this dazzling nonfiction debut, the author muses on the relationship between literature and computer code, in particular the proposition, in vogue among some tech leaders, that a programmer is a kind of creative writer… Revealing Chandra’s conclusions feels like spoiling a movie’s ending: a sign of how compellingly he frames the book’s rich intellectual drama. – Kate Tuttle, The Boston Globe (USA).

In a short span, [Geek Sublime] offers much material to consider, leaping from a history of computer programming and a primer on logic gates and how these programs work, to a personal account of Chandra’s writing life, to some serious philosophical inquiry into how the term “beauty” might be applied to programming…  Chandra provides more than sufficient intellectual guidance. Chandra’s book calls for a fuller appreciation of the programming world, not only because of the exponentially growing roles software plays in our lives, but also because of the actual work programmers do…  Chandra’s melodic prose further adds to the contingency of his ambitious ideas. This book is truly a relic of today’s day and age.  – Publisher’s Weekly (USA).

Chandra.. has written a brilliantly comprehensible syllabus for anyone curious about the inner workings of computers or the Internet, profound in its implications and conclusions. It is a surprising and passionate book, encompassing a primer on terminology for non-mathematicians, an explanation of “logic gates,” a meditation on Sanskrit as an algorithm, and a section on what makes Steve Wozniak “hardcore.”  – Jane Ciabattari, The Daily Beast (USA).

The easy summary of Vikram Chandra’s “Geek Sublime” would be to say that it demonstrates similarities between literature and programming: both are concerned with elegance and symmetry; both follow formal structures, and both aim for beauty. “Code is poetry,” as WordPress tells us every time we post something new.  But is it? Such a thumbnail—shorthanded in the book’s subtitle, “The Beauty of Code, The Code of Beauty”—does not do justice to the subtle and revelatory scope of this book, or Chandra’s ideas about programming or literature. In ten overlapping essays, Chandra also touches on, amongst other subjects, an Indian educational system that privileges Western literature, writing a novel, the dude-infused culture of Silicon Valley, the formative role of women in code, how computers actually work, and Sanskrit grammar.  It is delightfully hard to define, or place into a category. “Geek Sublime” is criticism molded by autobiography, biography, fiction, poetry and non-fiction. It could also be called a quest narrative. Chandra goes on a journey to answer fundamental and theoretical questions—are code and literature ruled by a similar logic? By twin aesthetics? Or both? Can we pinpoint the fundamental rules of either? Or do computers work—as many laypeople and programmers think—as if by some magic (as do many say of poetry?)  Full stops elude.  Never able to find a tight conclusion, Chandra, who grew up in India and moved to the United States to study literature, going on to work as a programmer and write novels, re-asks the questions, which, like code, becomes more complicated as they are iterated. So too do the possible answers. Those we may want to hear—the one we heirs to C.P. Snow, living in a digitally humanist world would be able take in stride—“the best code is poetry!” “fiction is hard wired!” —fail to contain the whole.  Programming  may, like literature, be concerned with “simplicity, elegance, structure, flexibility”—but it is also “uniquely kinetic. It acts and interacts with itself, with the world…Code moves.” And as it moves, it changes not just itself, but the world and biological selves: “Synbio is here, and bio-hackers and programmers will change you and your environment much sooner than you think.”  What match is art to such tangible effects? Enough.  Chandra tells us that literature alters consciousness too, even if poetry is not logic. And Chandra shows us this, too, by writing a lyrical and graceful and elegant book that keeps defying our expectations, outstripping itself,  wonderfully impossible to contain.  – Anne Trubeck, Critical Mass (The blog of the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors, USA).

Literature and computer programming, Sanskrit and Microsoft’s C# — things that shouldn’t go together somehow do in this enlightening meditation on the beauty of language, be it a line of poetry or code.  – O, The Oprah Magazine (USA).

Vikram Chandra’s Mirrored Mind is a coming-of-age book. Not like The Catcher in the Rye, which recounts the adolescent tribulations of 16-year-old Holden Caulfield, but more like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which, on the face of it, recounts a young girl coming of age in segregated 1953 Alabama but whose enduring value is in its examination of societal rules, written and unwritten. Mr Chandra’s book’s value is in the examination of the written and unwritten rules that govern the intellectual life of Indians of our generation… [Mirrored Mind is] 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, The Business Standard (India).

[Geek Sublime] is partly aesthetic analysis, partly an investigation of linguistic theory, partly a history of programming—and an entirely original work… Mr Chandra’s description of how computers work is masterly… the pleasure of reading repays the effort.  – The Economist (UK).

In this dense but rewarding book, Chandra, a novelist, blends memoir, social criticism, and the study of linguistics to consider the claim, put forward by some computer programmers, that writing code is an art form akin to writing fiction.  – The New Yorker (USA).

When I headed the computer department of a bank in the 90s, I was pitied for the long hours but no one thought it was not a woman’s job, validating Chandra’s point that there is a profound difference in the two cultures [of computing in India and the USA] regarding their idea of the “programmer”. Women form 30 per cent of the Indian IT industry…  Read this book with an open mind. Perhaps then there is a chance that you may be the sahrdaya this book is waiting for.  – Tulsi Badrinath, The Indian Express (India).

This wonderful, small book on coding, literature and the pursuit of elegance and rasa common to both professions is a minor triumph.  From Panini and Abhinavagupta to a potted history of the women in computer programming, Vikram Chandra makes several persuasive arguments, and sketches a wonderful East-West history of his own reading life. – Nilanjana Roy, Business Standard (India).

[Vikram Chandra] traces the impulses of his fiction by laying out the social history of computer programming in America and playing this off, oddly yet persuasively, against a detailed account of Sanskrit poetics. The memoir is an attempt to align the two sides of Chandra’s mirrored mind: his interests as a computer programmer and his passions as a novelist. If Chandra had decided to only write about computers, this would still be a very illuminating book… So with the clarity of a good teacher in complete command of his subject, balanced by the perspective of an outsider to whom computing is of cultural as much as technical interest, Chandra shows us what programmers do as well as how they talk and think about themselves.  At the heart of computing—and accounting for Chandra’s interest in it—is, of course, language, which is in some ways the real theme of this book. – Anjum Hasan, Caravan Magazine (India).

Is computer coding a creative act of the same stamp as writing a novel? It might feel that way if, like Vikram Chandra, you’re both a coder and a novelist. A coding painter would probably see different analogies. But Chandra is too astute not to recognise this, and his 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. – Phillip Ball, Prospect Magazine (UK).

Computational thinking is not new, and it is grounded in more fundamental disciplines such as mathematics, philosophy and linguistics. This, indeed, is one of the messages of Vikram Chandra’s fascinating and often beautiful new book, a kind of techno-artistic memoir that is informed by his unusual double ability as both novelist and coder…  Chandra is brilliant at technical exegesis – explaining logic gates, or evoking the appeal of “object-oriented programming” – but he also casts a sceptical eye on modern coding culture, especially its generalised misogyny…  Geek Sublime itself really made me want to read Chandra’s novels, especially the one with the monkey.  – Steven Poole, The Guardian (UK).

[The] two activities – writing and coding – are often seen as diametrically opposed, but over the course of this enlightening, meditative book, Chandra shows that they are far more closely linked than it would first appear…  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 (UK).

[Geek Sublime] dwells on Chandra’s gripping personal narrative . . . as well as his sometimes spiritual exploration of computer language, the ancient Vedas, and the way they share so many traits with fiction. In a sense, it’s like Zen and the Art of Software Maintenance. ‘The past and present speak to us in languages we refuse to hear,’ he proclaims, and it’s the book’s most succinct statement of intent—not to mention its own well-earned profundity.  – Jason Heller, NPR (USA).

Geek Sublime runs through the history of language and code, from the influence of Sanskrit’s algorithmic grammatical structure on programming languages to Silicon Valley’s current form of “hippie capitalism”. The best code, like the best poetry, boasts the beauty of brevity, simplicity and profundity. Chandra builds a compelling case for appreciating both.  New Statesman (UK).

Like a multilingual traveler who can hop across cultural borders without being hindered by language barriers, novelist Vikram Chandra enjoys the unusual position of being fluent and at ease in both high-tech and literary circles. . . . Geek Sublime is an engrossing and thought-provoking read. – Jessica Zack, The San Francisco Chronicle (US).

A surprisingly optimistic book that actually induces an almost universalist sense of awe. – Moze Halperin, Flavorwire (USA).

[A] highly appealing book…  The code that Chandra writes in this book makes more new connections than a short review can do justice to…  what Vikram Chandra has written offers something fresh and stimulating on every page.  – Owen Richardson, The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia).

With great subtlety and depth, Chandra, who is both a novelist and a programmer, traces the connections between art and technology.  – Citation, Notable Books of 2014, The New York Times Book Review (USA).

Geek Sublime is a primer for those of us unacquainted with HTML, Github and logic gates, elegantly assembled by a masterful novelist with a surprising obsession. “My writing life and my life with computers … seem mirrored, computer twinned,” writes Vikram Chandra. “Both are explorations of process, of the unfolding of connections.” He describes the seductiveness of DOS, his own journeyman coding, and how ‘hard-core” programmer Steve Wozniak single-handedly set off the personal computer revolution. And he waxes poetic about the algorithmic nature of Sanskrit.  – Citation, Our Guide To 2014’s Great Reads, NPR (USA).

Critical, smart, and self-reflective, Geek Sublime thinks deeply about how the act of creating technology is similar to the process of making art. – Citation, The Best Science Books We Read in 2014, Wired Magazine (USA).

In literary circles Vikram Chandra is well regarded as a novelist, with special attention to his sprawling novel about India, Sacred Games. But he also turns out to boast some bonafide geek credentials. He put himself through graduate school as a programmer, and has spent years thinking about code with the same deep attention he gives to his fictional characters.  The result is a marvelous little book, an exploration of how software code works and what it means that is full of unexpected detours into such topics as ancient Indian philosophy, the programming-code-like structure of Sanskrit, and gender dynamics in the software industry. Working with the tools of assembly language and his own immaculate prose, Chandra builds out a theory of creative expression that is both intimate and personal, yet spans thousands of years of history and culture. Things that one may have once thought obscure — how, actually, does code work, become clear. Things one never knew one was interested in, such as the tenth century teachings of the great Indian philosopher Abhinavagupta, become irresistibly engrossing. Geek Sublime is a journey into places you may never have known existed, but is rooted in the code that makes the modern world work. If there’s a better example of how sophisticated our understanding of this new world is, I haven’t read it, yet.  – Citation, The 10 Best Tech Books of 2014, Medium (USA).

Thoroughly researched, magnificently integrated…  The chapters on Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta are masterful…  Chandra uses his own twin lens as a software programmer who is also a writer of literary fiction to suggest that the confluence of technology and art is not only possible in this post-Renaissance-person age we live in, but also vital to life itself.  – Rajesh C. Oza, India Currents (USA).

Chandra makes dazzling connections between technology and art in this marvelous book.  – Citation, Best of 2014, San Francisco Chronicle (USA).

Vikram Chandra’s Geek Sublime (Graywolf Press) is superbly erudite and engaging.  – Citation, The Best of 2014, The Sunday Guardian (India).