The last couple of years really screwed up a lot of things. Weddings were delayed or reworked; TV shows were cancelled because they couldn’t film them correctly (R.I.P., Stumptown); and don’t get me started on my plans for world domination. But on some occasions, the terrible times we’ve been living through may have made some things better. Take The City Inside (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), Samit Basu’s near-future anti-dystopian science fiction novel, which, he reveals in the following email interview, was originally a rather different novel.
Photo Credit: © Sanghamitra Chakraborty
Let’s begin with a plot overview: What is The City Inside about, and when and where does it take place?
The City Inside is a near-future anti-dystopian science fiction novel set in Delhi about a decade from now. It’s about two people, a man and a woman, trying to find their place in the world, and a way to make it better. It’s also a story about surveillance capitalism, culture clashes, dysfunctional families / friendships / workspaces / urban societies a decade in the future but reflecting the fast-changing India of now, under threat from forces both medieval and futuristic.
Joey is a Reality Controller, a sort of manager / editor / producer figure for a Flowstar, an influencer / celebrity figure who happens to be her college ex. Her job is to supervise his multimedia multi-reality livestreams, and she’s very good at it. This gives her a lot of influence, but she’s unable to see how to use this to make her life, or her surroundings, or her city better in any way, because looking away from the dangerous world around her is the only way to stay safe.
She impulsively offers a job to a childhood friend Rudra, who is a recluse estranged from his wealthy and powerful family and is on the verge of being drawn back into an extremely shady family business. And then they both get drawn into matters larger than them, and their lives spin out of control — and most of The City Inside is about how they each find their own path towards deciding who they are, and what the right thing to do is.
Where did you get the idea for The City Inside? What inspired it?
The plan initially was to write something more traditionally sci-fi, set perhaps further in the future, more cyberpunky / dystopian, a sort of Black Mirror, or multiple episodes of Black Mirror taking place simultaneously, set in South Asia over the next 50 years. But then the last five years happened, and in the strange world of now — which is often post-logic, post-truth, post-reality — I began to find other things more interesting: How tech is used to change society, rather than the tech itself; how people and places change but stay the same, and how in a world where there are multiple-choice apocalypses just around the corner; how some of us can still be fine if we choose to look away from terrible things around us. We’re already in a world where many of us, in the middle of utter global chaos, are just trying to have a normal day, or week, or life, and even that is enough of a challenge. And then a series of traumatic events, extraordinary even in these times, rocked India — the pandemic was terrible, but even before that there were massive protests against a citizenship law, followed by horrific majoritarian violence. And I found myself wondering how the generation now in their teens would grow up in a world changing even faster than the current one, and who they would be in their twenties, and how they would cope in a very surveillance-capitalist, effectively post-democratic city and world. And the book changed. It became less cyberpunky, the action set pieces were cancelled to make room for more meetings and shoots, and I focused much more intensely on the characters and their immediate surroundings, because I wanted it to be political, social and internal above everything else.
So, is there a reason you set it in near future Delhi as opposed to near future Mumbai or near future Tokyo or some other place in the not so distant future?
It’s set in Delhi because I live there most of the time, and it’s also the power and media capital of the country. Just as importantly, it’s a city where empire after empire has broken down the centuries. The city needed to be a place I knew well, and a key venue for national power and perception struggles past, present and future.
And in a similar vein, is there a reason why Joey is a Reality Controller for a livestreamer as opposed to an actor, musician, athlete, or some other kind of celebrity?
Largely because people who have to draw roadmaps for celebrities and clean up after them are much more interesting than the celebrities themselves. They have influence and power, and also responsibilities and ethical concerns that celebrities often don’t. Joey’s drawn from a number of people I know, who are all in a particular range of professions — editors, managers, producers — who have to handle a tremendous amount of responsibility and stress, and are often too distracted to realize they also have a lot of power.
You said earlier that The City Inside is an anti-dystopian science fiction. Are there other genres that are at work in this story as well?
It’s unambiguously near-future science fiction, has a lot of overlaps with cyberpunk in terms of setting and concerns but not really in terms of expected plot flow, and takes place in a world that I thought was realistic, one we pretty much already live in, but reviews have described as dystopian which was really surprising to me because it’s intended to be hopeful and just a few degrees north of contemporary.
Now, correct me if I’m wrong but by my count The City Inside is your eleventh novel…
You know, I’ve lost count myself. It’s my sixth adult sci-fi novel, and third out in North America.
Cool. So, are there any writers, or stories, that had a particularly big influence on The City Inside but not on any of your other books?
It’s been inspired by real people I know, speculative non-fiction about the future and the news, which is hopefully not all fiction. Which is a first for me because my other novels are the usual inspiration-mix of real life and fiction in various media.
How about non-literary influences; was The City Inside influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Similarly, nothing that’s fiction: some of the research was speculative non-fiction TV / documentaries.
Along with your novels, you’ve also written or co-written some comic books, including Devi, Local Monsters, and Untouchable with Mike Carey. Did you ever consider writing The City Inside as a comic book?
I love writing comics but I can’t draw, and novels have always been my favorite medium. I love collaborations, but now if I want the joy and chaos of collaborative creation I’m likelier to dive back into film or TV than comics. The City Inside was very personal, and quite internal, so was never going to be anything other than a novel.
Of the novels you’ve written, eight were part of three different series — The Gameworld Trilogy, Turbulence, and The Adventures Of Stoob — while the other two, Terror On The Titanic and Chosen Spirits, were stand-alone novels. What is The City Inside?
It’s stand-alone. Though I should mention that it’s an updated rewrite of Chosen Spirits, which was published in the Indian subcontinent in 2020. The events of 2020 and 2021 were huge enough to warrant a backstory / world alteration I thought, for a book set a decade in the future.
Earlier I asked if The City Inside had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to turn things around, do you think The City Inside could work as a movie, show, or game?
A show, I think. It’s got more narrative than a single movie could contain, so it would likely be a season of television, one of those eight-to-ten episode dramas.
And if someone wanted to make that happen, who would you want them to cast as Joey, Rudra, and the other main characters?
I’ve had books optioned before in both Bollywood and Hollywood, so have learned the hard way that authors stating dream cast is unwise — what you’re supposed to do is wait until casting is done and say those were the people you had always thought of. And having worked on the film side of things as well I know how complicated casting always is, so I’m fairly detached about anything related to it.
Speaking of which, you’re the writer and co-director of a Netflix series called House Arrest. If someone wanted to adapt The City Inside into a TV show, would you want to work on it?
I don’t think I’d want to work on it. It’s all quite personal for me (for this book more than others) and it would be difficult to follow someone else’s vision for it as a writer. I’ve tried that before with one of the attempts made to adapt Turbulence, and it wasn’t fun, even though the people in charge were really nice. So I’d probably do some sort of advisor / consultant / exec producer role if they wanted, but I’d be fine just watching the show later as well.
So, is there anything else that people interested in The City Inside should know?
Let’s see… I think, for a start, that while the book is set in India, a lot of its concerns are applicable anywhere in the world, because while we’re still divided by borders and politics and cultures, we’ve achieved a sort of online-led singularity, and are all facing a startlingly similar set of concerns with disaster capitalism, democracy’s decline, post-truth and propaganda, climate change, automation, and so many other concerns. So if you’re interested in how people might be handling not just the big picture, or social media, but also things like dating, offices, privacy, parties, protests, shopping, meetings, commutes, housing, and other absolutely everyday concerns a decade from now, you might find The City Inside interesting.
Finally, if someone enjoys The City Inside, which of your other novels or series of novels would you suggest they read next, and why that one?
Turbulence and its sequel Resistance are the other books of mine available in North America, so those. They’re superhero novels, very different in tone and pacing and structure from The City Inside, but concerned with several of the same questions.
But I’m also working on a bunch of other things, and hopeful of delivering a number of exciting options to this list over the next few years.