Layers of Choice: Discussing The City Inside with Samit Basu
Misha Grifka Wander
As the world grows more complicated, and for many people, more dangerous, it also becomes more tempting for those with privilege to turn their gaze away. Samit Basu’s new novel The City Inside explores this temptation from the perspective of two residents of near-future Delhi: Joey, the manager of a hugely popular livestreaming star; and Rudra, a disaffected gamer alienated from his wealthy family. Initially disconnected from the political world, both characters begin to realize just how deep the divide is between the people with power and those without. And around them, Delhi struggles with water shortages, mobs, police violence, severe heat, and more—all while its residents try to articulate what it means to live in Delhi, to be Indian, to live half on the global stage and half drowning in local partisanship.
The future depicted in The City Inside is eerily familiar, a mirror’s distortion away from the current world. Smart tattoos and AI assistants are more prevalent, but the young people in the novel face the same questions as my peers and I do. How is it possible to live a meaningful life in a society fixated on appearance and branding? How do you make real change from within a broken society? The City Inside does not offer a traditional fantasy or science fiction solution, ie, one brave person with a daring plan to fix everything. It is more incremental than that. Resistance, Basu seems to be saying, is possible for everyone, in their own ways.
I spoke with Basu over Zoom to ask him more about The City Inside, politics, science fiction, and his writing process. The transcript below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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Misha Grifka Wander:
I really enjoyed reading The City Inside. Is it the same book that’s called Chosen Spirits elsewhere?
It’s updated, in the sense that it’s a new draft, and I think it has about 10,000 more words than Chosen. Because there was a lot of shifting around of the background to adjust for the not-insignificant events of 2020 and 2021.
Yeah, very much not insignificant! Which particular things did you make big changes to?
Well, I figured that, you know, the pandemic above everything would be something that would be foundational to the teenage lives of the protagonists, 10 years in the past. I’d also unfortunately predicted a pandemic in Chosen Spirits, but it was one mention. The completely horrific lack of response of any Indian authorities and institutions to what eventually happened in the pandemic added this completely unnecessary extra layer of trauma to the proceedings. So I figured that it needed that bit of extra work to make sure that it had kind of settled into their personalities and their surroundings as well.
Yeah, definitely. I feel like we already kind of live in a different world from 2019 versus now. I was also wondering about the title. Chosen Spirits and The City Inside are very different titles. Did you have anything in particular in mind for the change of the title, or was it up to the publisher?
We did brainstorm a few titles between Tor.com, my agent Diana Fox, and myself. And their view was that Chosen Spirits was the title that came out of the poem that’s in the beginning, which is an old Urdu poem, which was supposed to reflect that these were the people who were supposed to be representative of the age that the story was set in. But the worry from their side was that in the US, the book might be interpreted as more spiritual than it would have been here. And that was true, actually, because when the book was coming out, I was doing that not even mildly narcissistic thing, scrolling my Twitter mentions, and the book title and all of that. And everything about my book was very deeply spiritual talk, coming out of, I think, the Bible Belt in the US. So I figured if that was the connotation then I certainly wanted to kind of move away from it.
The City Inside was suggested by my agent, in fact, who was saying that since you’re kind of reflecting many layers of interiority here, and it is very much about the soul of the city and a kind of battle to reclaim it, which I thought really worked. And once the cover was in, I had no further questions because I just love that cover.
The focus on interiority is really interesting given that it’s also extremely focused on social media and on that exteriority of constantly filming yourself and constantly presenting yourself. I feel like people who write about social media either do it because they’re constantly on social media themselves or because they’re like, I hate it and I don’t want to interact with it. Are you on social media a lot?
I’m on social media all the time. I feel like I live on the internet, because since the internet arrived the kind of work that I do has always been fairly isolating, in the environment I’ve worked in, because there’s really not a lot of people who are working in that space yet. So both in terms of finding out what to read or just finding people who understand what I’m doing, the internet has been a complete lifeline in just you know, finding community in whatever odd shape, size, or form one could find it. So, so yeah, so I’ve always been a very online writer.
Also, during my early 20s, I had a bit of a strange fame bubble in India. And it was from a situation where I’ve always grown up accustomed to meeting very few people and kind of having a very bookish life and not being ready for public interfacing at all, to suddenly being in rooms with very passionate, very fashionable people whose names I was expected to remember a second after meeting them. So there’s that idea of, you know, what people’s public faces are, or what are the identities that they acquire when they go online? And what are the freedoms of it? What are the challenges of it? That has been a lifelong obsession of mine.
I’ve worked in Bollywood, and over the last few years, there’s been a lot of influences in my life, and just observing them and seeing, you know, what their lives were doing to them really. Apart from the successes. Which has been sort of a very constant inflow of interesting visuals and pieces of dialogue.
Yeah, Joey [the main character of The City Inside] isn’t in front of the camera, usually, but still experiences a lot of inner turmoil about her role in producing this content.
Yeah, yeah. And she’s very clearly based on about four or five people I know. They’re all women who are in these positions of immense responsibility, either as magazine editors or film and TV producers, or managers of really eccentric and not very nice talents, who just have to constantly strike this balance of where they’re both kind of influential and powerful, but at the same time, they’re very used to putting themselves in the background, and just handling a lot of stress without even really realizing how powerful they are, and what they can do with it, because they’re so caught up in the day to day. So when I was trying to think of a person who could be an interesting voice for the specific dilemmas that I was trying to filter through a character, Joey kind of crystallized from very real people who I had been friends with for a decade or more.
It seems like for a lot of the book, Joey’s not convinced that she can really make change in any way. She’s just focused on the day to day, like you said. But by the end of the book, it does seem like there’s a sort of cautiously-optimistic ending, where it seems like people are going off to join the revolution. And I wonder, do you think that that kind of real resistance in this kind of society is possible? Is this a call to action? Or is it a mere fantasy?
I think it’s completely possible, especially given that Delhi, for example, has been the graveyard of multiple empires, both before and after our grand colonialism project. The sort of inequalities and power differences that the city has seen throughout its history must have seemed, at every point of history, to be just as completely unsurpassable as the current ones are.
When I wrote the draft that eventually became Chosen Spirits, it was also while I was participating in a huge number of protests against some terrible things that have been happening here. And while it’s very clear that things were not going to change anytime soon, and that, at least for the next few years, they were going to get worse, this showed the resilience of people in large numbers, both who were there because they needed to be and people who were there because they just felt very strongly about it, and felt that their identities and their personhood had been misrepresented and misappropriated into oppression that they didn’t want to be a part of. And when I was looking at at the young people, not just people in college, when you’re going through your most innately revolutionary phase, but even kids in middle school, who, despite whatever cynical things any adult might say about them, stepped out of their video games and stepped out of, you know, whatever their distractions and obsessions, because they felt strongly.
There’s always hope, there’s always going to be hope. Regardless of how insurmountable things are. This book was initially supposed to be a much more cyberhacking adventure thing where, you know, a large system was hacked by the daring. It would have, you know, some very skillful people, and a revolution happening, and all of that. But in the middle of what the country was going through, it felt really dishonest to pretend that there was a solution that a single hero could bring us through a single act of bravery or cunning. I started focusing on how people find their own versions of resistance, given the challenges that they’re facing, and given the environment that they’re in, with a mixture of both surveillance and attempted control, and just lies from every direction where you don’t even know what the truth is about anything.
In the world we live in now, it is so difficult to figure out who you are, it is so difficult to figure out what your priorities are, what you want to do, which of your identities to embrace, which to celebrate, which to fight for. So I thought I would look at some people who are not really oppressed. I thought I would look at privileged people, who still had the choice to look away and to be successful, and to, you know, just be comfortable in circumstances where anyone from outside would be fine. I see it. You’re just living your life, I get it. But what could lead them to find their own forms of resistance in the world that they live in? So this became the challenge of putting the story together.
Yeah, I found it very striking that at the beginning, Joey’s stresses are like, oh, there’s no air conditioning here. Or, like, oh, I have a really busy filming schedule this week, it’s very stressful. And then as we move toward the end of the book, and people move out of those spheres a little bit, at least from like a US contemporary perspective, it seems like there’s a lot of violence that most people have to face. At one point, a mob gathers because they want access to water. And there’s a couple of mentions of warlords that may be invading Delhi at some point soon. There’s this looming threat of physical violence, along with the sort of ideological violence that’s ongoing. What led you to incorporating that, when otherwise these characters are dealing with very intellectual problems a lot of the time?
It’s completely because it’s the environment that people are actually living in the city now, where everything in this book is a very, very slight exaggeration of existing situations. And I have to say that since the book came out here, and I’m sure it’ll happen in the US as well, it has been called dystopian. But it is a very, very mild dialing up of present day realities. And the thing is, this is the situation in which people are living their lives, they’re trying to find, you know, laughter and love and hope and just ordinary gatherings and friends. And so the settings of normal are what we’re dealing with here. And what we’re also dealing with really is that for people like myself and people of my generation, the country that we were promised in our teens and our 20s was this kind of progressive, global facing, major world destination. For example, what the Koreans are doing in film and music and TV, this is what we thought we’d be doing. When we were in middle school, we thought we’d be part of this global culture wave, and instead we’re really not.
But for people who are growing up now, the dreams they have been sold are completely different. So I thought the future of science fiction would be an interesting one to see what this would be like a decade in the future because there is absolute certainty that the problems that people are facing will be even more extreme. The city is going to run out of water in some time. There’s a heatwave happening right now—yesterday, the peak temperature was 50 Celsius [122 degrees Fahrenheit]. That’s not human. In a Delhi summer, if your air conditioning doesn’t work, you’re done. You just have to escape and find the place where it’s working and put up with whatever the conditions are.
And it also becomes very difficult to realize that for someone like me, for instance, if I decide to not raise my voice about anything at all, and I just focus on making nice movies or something like that, yeah, I can live in this very sheltered bubble. And not to ask for any sympathy about this, but it causes immense guilt. But at the same time, there are so many people in this country who are facing physical danger and violence, with at least the threat of death, every day, looming over their heads. And there will be more people like that, a decade from now, you know. The violence that lurks in the background of the story is very real.
In the middle of that, when you see the people who are facing horrible situations, even now, and will be a decade later, you can sit and have a chat with them, and you’ll be laughing some times, because, you know, that’s what normal is for them now. And they still find a way to live, they still find a way to have love lives and jobs and watch movies, and, you know, check out what’s happening on TikTok. So that’s where the backdrop comes from.
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. This middle class guilt, I think a lot of people in the US feel that guilt, and then turn it into “well it’s wrong that I’m feeling guilty. It’s not my problem. And I don’t want to look.” And so I really enjoyed the perspective of the fairly privileged characters in the book, having almost a little bit of that instinct and saying, “No, I will look and I will continue to reach out.”
To sort of change direction a little bit, I know that you’ve also worked in Bollywood, and you’ve made movies and comics as well. How is writing for a novel different for you than writing for films or comics?
It’s completely different. I’m glad that it was comics first. So this was many years ago, 2006 or something like that. And this was the time when a lot of interesting work was starting up in India, because it was a global capital destination, all of that. So a lot of foreign companies were trying to get in on what could have been an explosive entertainment industry—and it is a really big industry. So since at the time, I was probably the best known fantasy writer in the country, a lot of people who wanted to do that kind of work sent me emails out of the blue. And I had never thought that I would get to write comics, because I didn’t know that different people could write comics and draw them and it was fine. And I cannot draw at all. I am an extremely untalented person; I have no musical skills, I have no art skills, I deeply envy people who have either of them. Because the way that you can just reach someone in one second, with either of these skills, as opposed to making them go through the labor of reading something? There’s just no comparison.
Anyway, rant over. So when, the comics companies came and said look, we’re here, we have all these big names working for us, would you like to write comics? I said yes immediately. There was an editor who was heading it who used to work for Marvel. So she gave me this very intense crash course in writing comics, which I failed at for three whole drafts until I began to vaguely grasp it. I think what is most beautiful is that you learn to think visually and spatially in a way that you don’t in prose, in the sense that you’re actually visualizing a page and the design of it as a narrative device in a way that you do not have to impose.
And the other thing is letting go of control and learning how to collaborate is such a big deal. For someone who’s written only prose up to then, because you really have to just put in skeletal descriptions of what’s happening and a piece of dialogue, but you know what the character looks like in your head, and you know what everything looks like, and you can’t put it down, and someone else has to do it. And it’s horrifying. But it’s also great. Because they draw it better than you would have even if you could draw in the first place. So, the joy of creating something that is bigger than the sum of its parts, and you’re watching it come together through collaboration, on the one hand, and on the other, just learning to think spatially, and then the precision and kind of compression that comics teaches you is really like nothing else. Because, you know, you may have a lot to say, but you say it in these five words, or next week.
So that was quite lovely. And it is also the best possible training ground to write screenplays, where the scale of lack of control is infinitely more. Because you’re just making a blueprint, really, and having also worked as a director, I know exactly what happens to scripts on days of shoot. So the reason why screenwriters get like 1% to 2% of the budget of a movie is now clear to me. I now know why films are bad. The sheer amount of just human collaboration and manipulation and something in between that you need to get a single shot in, and the amount of—I’m not very used to assuming power like a totalitarian leader. But doing that, as a director, while being fully aware of what I was doing, is crazy.
And so while screenwriting itself is fun, the nice thing is along with giving up control, you also give up responsibility in a lot of ways, so if it’s terrible, chances are it’s probably your fault, but it also might not be your fault. Direction teaches you many, many more things, just trying to steer the most chaotic ship of all. And for me, also, it was Bollywood and Bollywood is Hollywood with extra layers of chaos, and a completely different storytelling pattern and style. And it’s in Hindi, which I rarely speak. So, that was fun.
So you had to direct in Hindi?
Yes, yes. There were some actors who spoke only Hindi. So I clearly have very expressive nonverbal facial communication, that or my sheer desperation, something won through and made them do what I needed.
I would also love to know what you’ve been reading, and what you’d recommend for people. What have you been enjoying lately?
I just read Nghi Vo’s Siren Queen and I loved it. I loved it so much. I’m obsessed with old movies, both classic Hollywood and classic Bollywood, and to see that world being kind of taken apart and put back together. And I love her writing in general. So that is the last thing I was completely destroyed by. I just caught up on Harrow the Ninth as well, which I also loved. I loved Gideon when I read it when it came out. But putting that aside, what else did I read recently? Not much. I haven’t been reading much at all. Because I’ve just finished a novel so I’ve been in a hole really now.
Yeah. Taking a little break from words.
Yeah. Otherwise, let me see. The last Murderbot—I love that series. I read that recently. I’m going to do a reread of Indra Das’s The Devourers, which came out in 2015. Which I read and loved then but I want to get to again now.
I read that book and immediately purchased a copy for someone else because it was so good.
I’m trying to not subtly push him into his next novel. So that’s a service I’m happy to provide. I’m on it.
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The City Inside is available from Tor.com starting June 7.
Misha Grifka Wander is a Midwestern artist and writer currently pursuing a PhD at Ohio State University. Their major research fields are video game studies, comics studies, and speculative fiction studies, using a ecocritical and queer lens. Their work focuses on queer experience, speculative futures, and the environment, themes they explore through comics, poetry, criticism, game design, and prose. Misha lives in Columbus with their partner and two very soft cats. You can find them on Twitter @MishaGrifka.
This interview was arranged after a publicist from Tor.com reached out to ARB about the possibility. Misha Grifka Wander is an ARB editor and contributor; this article was edited by Jake Casella Brookins. A review copy of The City Inside was provided by Tor.