The Big Idea: Samit Basu
We all want to be heroes, but how realistic is an individual saving the world? Author Samit Basu explores this idea in his newest book, The City Inside, making his characters focus on what they can save in their own worlds.
My Big Idea, initially, was to write a near-future story set in my city. Largely to channel into text, and some sort of clarity, the whole haze of anger-anxiety-amusement-affection I’d been seeing spike both within and around me over the last decade.
The whole world’s been a mess, but even before the pandemic the accelerated rate of both physical and technological change and social and political chaos in India had been overwhelming, and I’d needed a way to process it, and I’d thought that one way to do that would be mapping out the first half of this century for my region, using current and speculative non-fiction, the news both real and propaganda, and whatever I’ve learned from being an SF/fantasy writer in multiple media for two decades now.
I knew I’d focus on people at or above my own privilege level, who would probably be alive in the future, and safe if they looked away from anything dangerous, perhaps even happy and successful if they conformed enough, while other people escaped or submitted or disappeared. I knew I’d focus on people significantly younger than myself, the children and teenagers of now, who were never sold the dream that India was some kind of future superpower that would very significant in a vaguely Star-Treky progressive global order.
My protagonists’ generation would grow up in a country that from the outside was somewhere between cyberpunk and dystopia, often both under a layer of exotic, lush visuals. And in Delhi, a city that’s been a serial killer of ancient empires, and in the present is already harsh, extreme-unequal, polarised, totalitarian, digital-distracted, over-surveilled, oligarch-infested, water-short, violent, overheated, megapolluted, propaganda-saturated and often very beautiful. And full of the most dazzling people you’ll ever meet, nearly all of whom have an escape-Delhi plan whether they’ll ever use it or not.
When I started the book that eventually became The City Inside my plan was to write a novel in three sections, each a decade apart from the next, tracking my protagonists as they escaped or defeated the multiple-choice apocalypses approaching their world – climate change, genocidal tyrants, social and political conflict from state-sponsored religious extremism, mass unemployment, mass migration, technological threats beginning with mass surveillance and cyberwarfare, and of course lingering/evolving pandemics, and then you add new invented tech, like several Black Mirror episodes happening simultaneously, but in India for escalated chaos settings. And it wasn’t research-induced depression (alone) that made me realise this wasn’t a Big Idea, though I think it was the beginning of one.
SF, fantasy, and several of their neighbours under the speculative umbrella are my favourite place in literature, and not because I grew up with them: I had very limited access to SFF in my youth. They’re what I love most because they can do anything any other branch of storytelling can, but with more wonder and imagination, range and scale, feeling and structure. SFF at its best achieves truth, meaning and insight into our times and selves, sometimes with metaphor and abstraction and distance, in a way other forms struggle to. And most of my favourite works in SFF are not only great at character and idea, but also incredible architecture, clockwork, and ambition.
These are the frameworks I try hardest to write better in, and hopefully improve at as the years pass, and one of these is clarity in worldbuilding: a sense of order and understanding and precision in the invented universe, all the better to take speculative leaps from. But somehow they didn’t feel right for this story. Not if I was trying to engage harder, immerse more, in a real place and a near-future time where everything was confusing, and no one could be trusted. So the Big Idea really became trying to make this novel more real, more immersed, more present even if that meant sacrificing a lot of the things I enjoy writing most, and feel like I know how to do.
I tried setting a few writing rules to help this: I’d work with characters based entirely on chimaeras of people I knew, doing future versions of their actual jobs, having experiences I’d heard of third-hand at least. I’d work only in locations I knew well. And perhaps most crucially, I threw away the entire future history of the next South Asian half-century for being too tech-based and logic-based for the region, shifted my action setpieces to the periphery, threw away two of my three section outlines and limited the whole thing to a decade into the future. I decided to use, for worldbuilding, enhancements of tech that already existed, had been invented or prototyped, even if it was not available to buy or mass-produced and distributed yet, and then focus mainly on the ways this definitely-happening tech would be used in work-fields, urban environments and social situations I knew.
I know it’s not SF’s job to predict the future, but the more immersed I got into this future world the harder it became to pretend there was any action setpiece, plot device, or magic tech-led solution to any of its problems, that there was a single villain-set whose removal would fix things, or even that my protagonists could revolutionise or transform or save the world or the country – or even learn if how it could be saved without destroying or corrupting themselves utterly.
And in this part of the world we’ve seen only too often that tech is used to exclude, oppress, control and distract as much as it’s used to evolve or protect. I could of course wholly invent a single catastrophic crisis and have them solve it, but it felt like an escape. And I love the escape that a lot of my favourite SF and fantasy give me but having decided to dive further into immersion it was clear that only multi-generational, multi-demographic, multi-directional social change, political will, cultural evolution and economic transformation could slow down if not reverse my region’s slide into utter chaos. There is no hero for us, and so there couldn’t be any in the book.
So it made more sense to ask: if my protagonists couldn’t save the world, could each of them find out what they could save instead? Could they find out who they needed to be in a world that was trying to gaslight, manipulate and measure them? To find their own resistances and revolutions, no matter how small, and through those to movements and communities larger then themselves?
It was the most difficult writing/rewriting experience I’ve ever had, not least because worldbuilding off news is a horrible idea when terrible headlines keep appearing years ahead of schedule. Maybe there’s a certain resonance to stepping completely outside the zone of things you feel like you know how to write when writing about a post-logic, choose-your-own-reality, sci-fi-intersecting, online-led-cultural-singularity world? I don’t know, but this was the Big Idea and the direction I chose.