Anil Menon, “The Beast With Nine Billion Feet” (2009) – It’s actually almost pleasant to read a book that’s just not very good because it’s not very good, without some additional factor- disappointment, ideological madness, ubiquity. Upon googling the book a little more, it appears that it is meant to be a “young adult” novel. What does that even mean considering how many grown-ass adults read “YA”? But it makes sense. The protagonists are two kids growing up in Pune, India in 2040, and the prose is indeed simple enough for middle schoolers to get through probably (not that that isn’t true for plenty of adult novels, or that there aren’t smart middle schoolers, etc etc conceptual problems). Googling late informed me of the YA nature of this book, and googling (but apparently not enough) got me into it- specifically, googling “Indian science fiction.” I’m curious about scifi from outside the usual Anglo-American context, and reading the great Liu Cixin whetted my appetite further. This book came up.
Tara and Aditya are two kids growing up in future-Pune, thirteen and sixteen respectively. Their dad is a brilliant geneticist who had to go on the run because he supported a sort of free-software regime for genetic modification. Truth be told the future isn’t all that different. There’s more gene modification but nothing that freaky- smart parrots, designer kids. Virtual reality is pretty big. India is still recognizably India, Tara wonders if she should gene-modify her dark skin. She meets some creepy twins who don’t have belly-buttons and their sinister mom. She befriends the twins despite their creepiness. Meanwhile, Aditya is a gene-hacker but gets in various kinds of low-grade trouble. The dad comes back. The creepy mom wants to do in the dad, somehow, or get him involved in her bad patented-gene schemes.
None of this coheres very well. Menon can’t quite nail where to set up his looming threats for best effect, like an earnest but incompetent haunted house manager. I’d say it “keeps you guessing” except it’s hard to be bothered. It also seems to be setting up for a sequel, but it’s been eleven years so who knows if it’s coming? And he doesn’t even tell you what the beast with nine billion feet is. I give it an extra half star because of my inability to judge YA but I’m pretty sure this isn’t a great example of that, either. **’