Science fiction writer Samit Basu discusses his new novel 'Chosen Spirits', about a future world that is a scarier reflection of our own
Publishing your book in the middle of a pandemic lockdown may not be ideal, but given the subject matter of Samit Basu’s Chosen Spirits (Simon & Schuster India, Rs499), it seems quite apt. Basu is a popular writer of science fiction and fantasy books like the Gameworld Trilogy and Turbulence, as well as the Netflix film House Arrest, but his new novel is very different. It’s less speculative fiction and more caustic investigation of the times we live in. Set in an India just a decade from now, Chosen Spirits is about a world where technology and religious bigotry combine with near-total corporate control over the lives and bodies of citizens.
In a phone interview, Basu, who is based in Delhi, talks about the difficulty of writing a near-future novel, and the reason he minimized sci-fi tropes to tell this particular story. Edited excerpts:
You contextualize the novel with the upheavals of the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC). Which makes me curious, when did you start writing the book?
My plan was actually to do a much longer, multi-part book spanning the next 50 years or so about all the disasters heading our way. So I did about three years of research and I started writing, and then I realized that just focusing on a world 10 years from now would be a book in itself. I wrote the bulk of the novel in 2018. But over 2019, a lot of the things I predicted would happen over the next decade started happening in advance. So, parts of the book had to be re-written. I finished a lot of the foregrounding of the book at the end of January this year. If you are looking at a realistic, politically conscious book where the protagonists are in their mid-20s, ten years from now, then they will have been fundamentally altered in some way by the CAA-NRC protests and, of course, now by the pandemic. If I was publishing it six months later, I would have had to rewrite the book focusing on the pandemic and the lockdown!
In shaping the narrative, you use the concept of social media run wild.
You look at Facebook, which arrived in 2004, then grew to become a power that can topple governments or sway elections. Or Twitter here in India, where it has become such a central tool of governance. This has happened over the past decade but it’s speeding up. So I thought the immediate future will be defined a lot by unregulated surveillance, unregulated social media.
‘Chosen Spirits’ seems to be a novel of ideas. There are so many conversations, sharply observed mannerisms, tics. It reads like a sci-fi social satire, a comedy of manners.
So I see this basically as a social novel. I am very comfortable with plotting. I can write lots of activity, plenty of action with some large consequences in the end. I didn’t want to do that because I felt that would be more escapist than what the story demanded. I had to keep it more true to life by keeping a lid on how much action, drama happens to the characters. There’s a very clear adventure track that is beginning further into the novel but I wanted that adventure to be outside the control of the main protagonist. It is fundamentally a “people like us" social novel and the science fiction aspect of it is muted and kind of kept in the background.
There seem to be a lot of Philip K. Dick elements to the novel. A future Delhi with all these dystopic machines and software with catchy anagrams overlaid on, say, a Chittaranjan Park we would recognize from today.
Our reality has intersected profoundly with science fictional time. A lot of the very radical science fiction imaginings of someone like Philip K. Dick are literally happening in our neighbourhoods. If you look at his ideas and do a layover on reality, it’s actually all happening. If you are writing about the far future, it gives you so much more power because you can really dictate what happens to the world. But I wanted to set that aside a bit and present only a mildly exaggerated version of what we are already going through.
What made you choose Delhi as the setting for the novel?
Though I am from Kolkata, I mostly live between Delhi and Mumbai. Between these two cities, I think Delhi is more connected to the rest of the world. It’s also a city where the different avenues of power are less insular, they are more interconnected. I have seen more people with fingers in five or six different pies in Delhi. It is also reflected in the nature of the protagonists that I was looking at. A shady corporate Bengali tycoon’s estranged son living with immigrants in an attempt to find himself, and a new media manager who isn’t a Bollywood person: such people seem to be Delhi people to me. Joey’s (the main protagonist, a social media 'Associate Reality Controller' in her mid-twenties) space is more intersectional and has to do with not only entertainment but with news. And I think that the crux of that mix is going to be a new media-led thing in Delhi.
A lot of it is also that I feel I know Delhi more because I have been here for a long time. It was a decision I made that I would write about the world that I knew. People I knew, places I knew. I thought a personal experience of such things other than pure imagination would make the story more immersive.
Both of your main protagonists are elite and privileged. Then there is this shadowy, underground world of the oppressed that’s trying to subvert the power structures. Why did you choose these elite people as your POVs?
This book isn’t purely speculative fiction, so given my own privilege, I would be much more uncomfortable using a non-elite voice for this book. So some of the characters you meet are people who are not privileged, they are a part of the resistance and not within the circles of safety and comfort that the protagonists inhabit. For the protagonists, I wanted to specifically look at people like me, who are broadly liberal leaning but privileged. Over the next decade, the lives of such people will be very comfortable and successful if they give in to the most stringent forms of conformity. It will be very easy for them to belong to the new world as long as they don’t ask uncomfortable questions. On the other hand, more and more people will be falling off the map, disappearing. I wanted to imagine what the former set of people would go through, if they decide to step outside their comfort zone, if they decide to not conform. A lot of the people who I thought had the same values as I did, people I grew up with, are now turning out to be so different from anything I could have imagined. Some of them are turning into monsters, because it’s easy and convenient. But this also makes them uninteresting as humans.
There’s a lot of meticulous world-building with tantalizing glimpses of a future India outside of Delhi’s borders. Is this something you want to look at as a series of stories?
I don’t know yet. I have done the world-building for the next 30 years. So I know what my 2030s would have and what my 2040s would have. But I wasn’t anticipating that the change would be accelerating so much right now! I am less confident about achieving any kind of mapping of a world 20 years from now. I am definitely going to use the world-building. But if I am trying to set a book in the late 2040s, it will be much more speculative and much more science fiction. Then it might be about robots in Delhi! But my aims would be different, not to integrate my story with what we are seeing on the news right now.