Devil’s Ether – An interview with author R.R Cherla

Thank you, Cherla, for this interview with us. Congrats to you on very positive reviews on your book.

1. What’s with the title?

‘Devil’s Ether’ has a nice mystical ring to it and I decided that it was to be the title of a debut novel. So here is a very contrived explanation:
‘Devil’ for the bad guys in the book, who use Remote Neural Monitoring to pry into the minds of citizens.
“Ether’ – the all pervading substance that fills the Universe — is the medium through which electromagnetic waves emitted by the human brain, travel great distances and are detected and interpreted by the bad guys.

The @ symbol however is the creation of a more rational mind — designer Geetanjali Kapoor’s. The conventional “@” is commonly used to depict technology and the Internet, and the rendition as a serpent is to denote the dangers that lurk in Networks – the platform that the antagonists use to establish a massive surveillance grid.

2. Being your debut novel, tell us what’s been your inspiration for the story?

It all began soon after I was diagnosed with acute dystopia overload. I used to have recurring dreams of a clandestine super-computing facility, with scientists in white lab-coats poring over consoles, prying into the minds of citizens. Writing about it is a sure cure, the exorcists said.

I have always been fascinated by the concept of Remote Neural Monitoring (RNM) and the ability to monitor and control citizens. It was more a techie’s enthrallment with the limits of computing and communication technologies — not the deviant desire to manipulate the masses.

I wanted RNM to be the basic theme of the story and went about plugging in other elements to make it fuller.

3. The story is set in the US. That’s interesting, to say the least. How much of research went into the locations, characters etc.?

I chose the American setting because the political backdrop and highly connected society suited the story, though I did first consider an alternate setting. I have to a great extent tried to draw from my inherent knowledge of the American milieu, which is not very difficult for India’s city-bred. My telecom and networking background came in handy when I had to wax eloquent about networks. Devil’s Ether is a broad based story, touching a number of domains – RNM, Social Media, Networks, Politics, Intelligence operations and International terrorism. Too much detail would have been a drag on the pace. To the average reader, the story had just to seem plausible in a contemporary setting. I researched mostly off the Internet. Devil’s Ether is an experiment in crafting a broad-based international thriller – sitting thousands of miles away from its setting!

Devil’s Ether is ‘conspiracy-centric’ and the characters are mere players. I had decided on the basic character and moral fiber of each of the players and let it dictate their behavior as I developed the story.

4. We were reminded of Christopher Nolan’s film ‘Inception’. Any co-relation to it at all?

I am flattered. They are connected in the sense that they both deal with the mind and surreptitious mining of thought. Inception’s premise of dream sequences and layering has a great deal of sophistication and is highly intricate. Devil’s Ether’s principle of Remote Neural Monitoring (RNM) and the manner in which the antagonists employ it, is quite easy to grasp. RNM itself is a complex and futuristic subject, but the book does not burden the reader with detail, and weaves it seamlessly into the other elements of the story.

5. Does the technology to neurally tap people exist?

Yes, but in a parallel universe. In ours, it is in its infancy. It is very likely that government departments in some countries are funding research in this area, for military and civilian uses. It is difficult to say what the actual state-of-art is. What is a reality though, is commercially available Brain Computer Interfaces (BCI), that allow players to control computer games through thought. A significant step in mapping neural activity to the entity’s conscious thought or intent.

6. Where did you grow up and what were your favorite books over the years?

Mumbai, Khartoum, Hyderabad and Pune were popular choices, and Bangalore has been home for the last twenty years.

My reading is varied and spread over different genre of fiction, and non-fiction. I particularly enjoy books set in the Cold War era, the mind games, intrigue and all. Not much into period and fantasy. Economics, Quantum physics and Genetics are topics I am intrigued by and devote some reading time to these.

7. Would it be presumptuous to say that you are a fan of Sci Fi?

Devil’s Ether has a futuristic element in it and is by default slotted in the Sci-Fi genre, though strictly it isn’t. No, I am not a fan of Sci-fi literature and there is not much I have read in this area – but, I have not desisted from giving my expert opinion on Sci-fi, when asked. I like a dose of realism in stories, though I enjoy a well-made sci-fi or futuristic film.

8. How long did it take for you to write the novel? What has been your writing strategy?

I first got the idea for the original story around seven years back, and there have been many twists and turns along the way. I wrote Devil’s Ether as a screenplay first and made a few unsuccessful attempts to peddle it in Hollywood. I revived the project a few years later and converted the screenplay to novel form. To keep the story topical, I had to rewrite parts to bring in modern-day elements like Social Networks. I first published Devil’s Ether as an e-book on Amazon, while I chased publishers. And then Osama Bin Laden got himself killed – and I had to change the story yet again! Vary of spoil-sport Americans and publishers, I decided to self-publish.

9. What is conspicuously absent in your book is an Indian element. Why is that so?

I have written this book for a global audience. The theme and story lend themselves to an American setting, and I wanted to integrate locales and characters that naturally fit in. I was tempted to slip-in an Indian element – a desi MNC — but it would not have done much for the story.

10. The book’s directs attention to American hegemony, imperialistic designs and the high-handed approach of the Intelligence and Military establishments. Do we detect an anti-American slant here?

No, that is not true. There is no political statement here and I have written to entertain. The book just echoes popular sentiment within and without the United States about American Foreign policy and the government agencies. It is much written and debated about. I don’t think anyone could be more direct than Noam Chomsky, in criticism. And he is a renowned American intellectual. Yes, the book does exploit and highlight the Big Brother approach, critical views and common perception, as it forms a fitting backdrop.

11. Given a choice, would you like to focus on writing as an occupation?

I do not see myself as an author, but rather a creator of a product. The intense desire to convert and idea or a concept into a tangible form – be it a book, movie, software product or service – is what drives me. In the case of Devil’s Ether it was book form. I have other ideas, and hope assume roles that let me deliver the products to an audience.

12. Any tips to aspiring authors?

For those of you who have a have a story to tell – put pen to paper and publish immediately. Don’t wait, or the Americans will thwart you.

Here’s a link to some reviews on the book across different media: Deccan Herald, Indian Express, Bangalore Mirror, The Hindu, DNA.