Anil Menon's The Beast With Nine Billion Feet uses "opposites" to tell its story. At the most primary level this is a story of social and ethical issues about genetic engineering. This is depicted through the covert war between two groups: one wants to make genetic engineering affordable and used for public good. It believes in propagating its boons through something similar to the current open source movement in software and is against manipulating genes to create creatures for entertainment, or engineering humans with special abilities. The other group believes such engineering is the future of the world — thus the single seed, which depending on the fertilizer can be "programmed" to grow three different kind of crops or the attempt to make humans immortal. This group also believes in monopolizing the IPR for their genetically modified creations.
This ethical dilemma and the major conflict of the novel plays out through the lives of a pair of siblings, Tara and Aditya (Adi) who are opposites of each other. Tara, the younger sibling, is a voracious reader, takes school seriously and is extremely grounded in the physical world around her. She loves her aunt, Sita, and her two friends, the twins, Ria and Francis. Her brother, Adi, on the other hand, is hooked on to virtual worlds through "illusion tech," and can't read, doesn't believe in formal education but is a genius self-taught genetic engineer. Adi finds acceptance in his virtual friends, his "posse," with whom he has worked on some genetic engineering projects. Adi also dreams of emigrating to Nurth, an artificial island near the North Pole, which believes genetic engineering of humans is the future.
The siblings' personal lives and relationships become twined in the ideological conflict around genetics engineering. Adi's mentor and friend, Vispala employs any means necessary in her pursuit for immortality. Vispala, as a diplomat from Nurth on a special mission to India, tries to kill Sivan's movement and get the Indian Government to accept Nurth's engineered life-forms. The siblings' scientist-politician father, Sivan, who earlier had been declared a terrorist for promoting "Free Life Movement" in genetics, returns from his exile after a presidential pardon to thwart Vispala's plans. Vispala is also convinced that Sivan knows the secret of longevity and is determined to wrest it from him. As Mandira, she comes to Pune, where Tara and Adi stay, with her twin children, Ria and Francis, who befriend Tara. Meanwhile Adi's resentment, partly fueled by Vispala, against his long-absent father and his ideology grows.
Who succeeds in their plans? The ruthless Vispala or the sagacious Sivan? Which of them is right? The Beast With Nine Billion Feet doesn't ostensibly take sides with anyone. It does not provide tidy answers to the questions it raises. Both Sivan and Vispala/Mandira lose some and win some. While it does raise a few questions, the inconclusive and mixed ending seems to tell readers to decide for themselves the ideology that appeals to them.
The Beast With Nine Billion Feet belongs to a sub-genre in science fiction called mundane SF — like most SF books this is set in the future but not centuries away. The novel is set in a world 30 years from now — a future that is almost tangible. Also while we have some typical sci-fi tech and concepts as a part of life — visors that spew information on the world around, genetically engineered nictating eyelids that perform a function similar to the visors, smart homes that talk, cars with AI that need to be praised, illusion pods that can transport a user virtually to another place where the avatar can touch and feel things and interact with others, and a wonderful history class set in an experience lab — it is the mundane, everyday life which is the focus Tara's problems at school, her history classes and her feelings about Sanskrit, the need for the siblings and their aunt to scrimp and manage their limited money, Tara's relationship with her friends - the twins, the rise and win of the Vermillion party and its strident manifesto in politics. It is in the interplay of these two "worlds" that the novel also focuses on an issue that is of much importance today — the ethics of biotechnology and genetic engineering. All this make the book quite interesting.
About the only quibble I have with The Beast With Nine Billion Feet is its use of its milieu. The story plays out in Pune in Maharashtra, India. For an Indian sci-fi book, there is very little of the setting in the story — few references to Appa Balwant Chowk, one mention of Shaniwarwada, a quick dash to Matheran and a passing mention of Mumbai. Nothing much else of Pune or India seep through into the story.
Do read the The Beast With Nine Billion Feet if you like science fiction and especially if you are interested in mundane SF. The book takes a look at a slice of the future which is near at hand and at an issue of today which possibly will be a bigger dilemma in the future.