Fiction Reflecting Our Fears: Samit Basu on Writing
Issue 14: Megacity | 2,336 words

Samit Basu is an Indian fiction writer who has published several critically acclaimed and compelling science fiction and fantasy (SF/F) novels, comics, and films that take place in megacities such as Delhi and London. To learn more about what motivates his craft and choice of setting, Meera reached out to have a conversation.


Speculative City (Meera): I’d describe your stories as multi-layered visual boards that act as political commentary, sociological study, and just plain entertainment. So I’m very excited to get into the brains behind the magic.

First, let’s jump straight into your writing practice. You’ve been described as a novelist, screenwriter, comics writer, and columnist. Do you prefer a particular medium or genre over another?

Samit Basu: I do—I’ve really enjoyed every medium I’ve worked in and have been grateful for every opportunity I’ve had to try new things, but I’ve always been a books person above everything else. Which is not to say that I think the novel is a superior medium of storytelling, but it’s the one that works best for me. I love the collective energy of film and the collaborative intricacies of comics, but given my specific life circumstances, I find myself coming back to novel writing whenever I can afford to.

My books—the books for adults, that is, as I’ve also written for younger readers, but those were more fun side projects to keep myself sane while I survived Bollywood—are best described under the umbrella term speculative fiction—there’s fantasy, there’s SF, there’s lit-speculative crossover, and there’s superhero adventures. I don’t really understand the borders of genre, and I read across genres, so I don’t have a favorite. I think if I had to make a top ten all-time favorite books list (a horrible exercise), I would end up with more fantasy books than other genres, if that counts as picking a favorite.

Regardless of preference, your characters clearly express—through their professions or interactions with their worlds—your knowledge and ease of movement between different media and genres. Joey, the protagonist of The City Inside, for instance, works in visual media and often narrates her life in a series of video shots. How intentionally do you overly multiple forms of storytelling in your writing?

It’s intentional—I think there’s a common visual language that’s global, thanks to the Internet and film and TV. And when one’s writing from the other side of the planet from a reader, it probably helps to have these overlays because there’s always the expectation of prose styles being foreign, however much social media has homogenized our language. In the specific case of Joey, it was really fun to use this form of narration; part of the challenge of working in different media is that you have to think differently when storytelling, and it was interesting to write a character who naturally thinks and expresses herself in a structure that I’d had to learn as an adult.

That mix of narrative styles is one compelling element of your works. Another is the future you craft by referencing our lived pasts and recognizable presents. In the Turbulence series and The City Inside, readers find characters moving within familiar geopolitical frameworks informed by real historical conflicts; they are all situated in near future worlds that showcase hyper-privatization, social media influencers, and water wars. What is your process for reconciling and accepting the past, and how does it inform the futures you create?

Twenty-first-century existence seems to be a constant exercise in either committing to an ideology someone’s sold you that requires, as a loyalty exercise, the abandonment of previous values or, alternatively, having to regularly reframe the fundamental way you see the world. In India for example, all the histories—those that framed our understanding of who we were and what our place in the world was—are being aggressively rewritten or erased. So young people now are growing up in a different reality—and not just because of climate change or technology or economic decline. At the same time, we’re realizing that so much of our understanding of other places in the world was just cultural propaganda. The lines between fiction and nonfiction, truth and lies, opinion and advertising have all been erased, so it’s really an interesting time to be alive. So I’m not sure I have a process for reconciling or accepting the past. In terms of imagining the future, I try to imagine that there are fundamental progressive human values that survive these times, and will survive even worse times, and try to visualize how that happens without offering false solutions like uncomplicated revolutions and simple correlations between effort and victory.

In your stories, you both overtly and subtly weave markers of caste and Hindu nationalist politics that Indians, in the subcontinent and the diaspora, inhabit and experience quite viscerally. Some would say your works are foreshadowing, that we can anticipate the futures you write. Do you feel fiction allows for liberties in illuminating dystopian but realistic visions?

I think the only book of mine that could be called dystopian but realistic is The City Inside—the SF/F elements in all my other books are at a much higher setting, though those works are also informed, of course, by the cultures I was exposed to in reality and fiction. The City Inside got called dystopian a lot, and I see why, but it’s basically because dystopia is a function of distance. I guess the Indian everyday is pretty dystopian when described, both for the Indian privileged and for people in the West? I’d thought I was writing a workplace dramedy about the city I lived in. And I’m confident reality in the near future will be much worse than anything in my book.

I’ve never seen The City Inside as anything but fundamentally optimistic (I tried to describe it as anti-dystopian but I knew it wouldn’t stick) because it’s really about coping with a slight exaggeration of present-day reality, of finding hope and purpose no matter how bleak and/or confusing everything around you is. Most of the sci-fi element is about projecting the social and political uses of technology that already exists, so all of it is going to come true one way or another in the world. This is where I insert the standard disclaimer of the goal of science fiction not being prediction but being a reflection or projection of present-day fears and hopes at both the individual and societal levels.

Fiction does allow for liberties but honestly not as much as I’d hope for. Part of it is because we live in politically dangerous times—so many powers want to constrain or remove liberties in real life and are only too aware of the potential freedoms that fiction allows. It’s multi-pronged—there are censorships, formal and informal, for most kinds of creative work, and there are also market-created forces of conformity that push all work towards formulae. Books are a lot freer than film or TV of course, and that’s largely a function of the final work’s scale of reach. The City Inside is never going to be a Bollywood movie (due to its material and tone) or a Hollywood movie (due to race and setting).

Anyone who’s picked up your works can tell you’ve got a finger on the pulse of the human social world. Is there a particular cultural or political moment that has shaped your writing the most?

Thank you! I honestly felt for a good while, mostly up to a decade or so ago, that I had a reasonable connection with human society in general. So that was nice to read. But I have to confess that I don’t feel that way anymore, largely because none of the news ever makes any sense, and now social media is pretty much broken as well. Even apart from these, the growing dominance of personalized taste algorithms everywhere is really making me feel like my reality is being customized and curated to a degree that goes well beyond consent and choice—and that all of this is giving me much less of a real sense of how other people feel about anything, both individually and in groups. But if that personal disconnect doesn’t show in the work, that would be great, so thanks again for saying so.

There’ve been several cultural or political moments that have really changed how I see the world—but the pace at which events hit us nowadays has accelerated so rapidly that I don’t think we even get to fully process a single event. If I had to pick one thing, it would be India’s transformation over the 2010s to a wholly different country. I had assumed, wrongly, that the pluralism and progressivism I valued among the diverse cultures in my real-life world were never going to go away, and that ancient evils only rose to take over the world within the covers of SF/F works.

Revolutionaries or rebel actors are generally your main protagonists, even when they don’t take themselves too seriously. Do you see the work of writing and imagining as this kind of revolutionary work?

 This is a hard question to answer. It is difficult for me to claim to be a worker towards revolution when I know I also want to land sweet deals with publishers and movie studios. I do think the work of writing and imagining can be revolutionary work, but the industries of capitalist storytelling are always conformist, and any rebellion they sell you must be deemed… marketable? If anything I ever create actually contributes in a real sense to any of the many necessary revolutions in the world, I will be very pleased… but I don’t see it.

The Gameworld trilogy features Rakshasas and Asuras, mythological beings that also appear in foundational Hindu texts. What’s your relationship to myth and how do you see myths evolving in our modern cities?

My first trilogy was set in a Discworld-esque multicultural world, where the key difference was that the central cultures were inspired by various non-western-European mythologies. There were rakshasas and asuras, but also creatures and characters inspired by a range of myths, and a megacity inspired by Ankh-Morpork but also London and Kolkata.

My relationship with myths has changed with age. Right now, I see less of the joy and power and absurdity and drama, and more of how myths are used for propaganda, nationalism, and erasure of complexity. I see how culture industries treat myths—what myths are retold and by whom; myths are appropriated by politics and transformed into vehicles of meanings that have very little to do with how the characters in the stories behave.

Let’s talk more about cities—these are spaces that both invite and antagonize; they position contradictions in close proximity, like shantytowns and luxury condos in the same block (a trend seen across the globe). Megacities only magnify these dynamics of competition over resources like water, electricity, and social relevance. Several of your novels are built around megacities, Delhi in particular. What opportunities do you find when writing about places of this scale?

Everything you said! Megacities are bottle universes—everything you need for any story squished together, every possible dramatic and narrative element right there. I’ve lived in four megacities so far—Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and London—and they’ve all found their way into my work.

The Jinn-Bot of Shantiport was just released in the US! Tell us more about this work. How does the megacity appear in this novel?

The Jinn-Bot of Shantiport is set in a megacity as well—this one is Shantiport, a former colonial/imperial capital with a rich and multi-layered history, now literally sinking, regularly flooded, run by a corrupt political clan—an oligarch, and a crime lord—and slowly being emptied out as people migrate to space—the poor as forced labor and the rich towards fancy housing on cleaner planets. It’s inspired by the idea of a future Kolkata under colonial rule yet again.

The book started out as an Aladdin retelling. I wanted to give the Aladdin story—a wandering orientalist fable that may have never belonged in the One Thousand and One Nights collection and was set in a vague ‘Eastern’ land that was at once China and an exotic Arabia—a home in the city where I first encountered it in Bengali. The story changed to an adventure, loosely Aladdin-related, because the city and its denizens, human and bot, decided they wanted a greater stake in the story and in the wishes made using the jinn-bot.

Lina, a daughter of failed revolutionaries, wants to spark a revolution in Shantiport. Bador is her robot monkey brother who wants to escape the planet to become a space adventurer. They find a jinn-bot, powerful alien tech that can change the world. Shenanigans ensue.

To close, what new authors or works have you recently found inspiring?

A lot of my favorite authors have published recently: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho, The Witch King by Martha Wells, The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older, The Secret Lives of Country Gentlemen by KJ Charles.

A lot of exciting SF/F has been coming out of my part of the world recently as well: The Saint of Bright Doors by Vajra Chandrasekera, The Ten Percent Thief by Lavanya Lakshminarayan, The Dragoners of Bowbazar by Indra Das, Mad Sisters of Esi by Tashan Mehta.