The City Inside, by Samit Basu
I found this near-future speculative fiction … quite interesting. On one hand, almost nothing happens. On the other hand, entire realities are being manipulated with an absurd cultural buy-in that is terrifyingly recognizable.
Joey is a Reality Controller in Delhi, and her client Indi (who also is her longtime friend and college ex) is one of the fastest rising online stars in South Asia. While Indi churns out content on his Flow, Joey is the one who orchestrates and packages it, all the time spinning authenticity even as she folds in public opinion, rating algorithms, product placement and titillation.
But while Joey is a master at what she does, she has no idea who she is. Her work with the Flow is decisive and her business acumen is remarkable, but when it comes to her private life, she is stalled between visualizing what she wants and doing anything to attain it.
Rudra is a reclusive gamer, the younger son of a friend of Joey’s father. While Rudra has been estranged from his powerful family for years, his father’s death pulls him back in; only an impulsive job offer from Joey seems to offer him a way out. But power is not created in a vacuum and an ever-widening ripple of conspiracies soon threatens not only Rudra, but Joey, as well – and far beyond the two of them.
The characters in The City Inside are fascinating, and the action is cerebral and calculating, but what really gripped me in this book was the worldbuilding itself. In the here and now, the reach of social media is vast but still steeped in entertainment, with viral posts, ranting political platforms, drama-laden power plays and instant celebrities as spectacle, and the hint that anyone can be seen and heard is intoxicating. But in Samit Basu’s world, social media has become intrinsic to society at all levels; not just with the focus itself, but in the influence that is spun off that focus. The manipulation of influence is in plain sight and accepted; what is virtual is so universally embraced that the deeper wrangling for control becomes even more devious, more insidious, more dangerous.
Yet along with this superficial societal landscape, Badu also has retained a very human, very personal aspect to his story that not only keeps us grounded, but allows us to care about what is happening not only to his characters, but also the world around them. His depiction of Delhi is built on his own, very real experiences, and the network of family and tradition, of cultural and social images – the very invoking of sounds and tastes and smells – is genuine and incredibly strong. For me, Joey’s relationship with her parents was especially compelling; she is modern and at the apex of her influence, yet still goes to see her parents every week despite resenting it; she loves them and acknowledges what they have been through even as she finds them peevish and in her own mind dismisses them (but less than she thinks). This feels so very real.
So while this book may not be slap dash and exciting, while there may not be a narrative driven towards a climactic triumph, it is still engrossing – much like a colorful puzzle where watching the moving parts is as much fun as the solving. But this puzzle is also somewhat disconcerting, because it feels strangely familiar, and potentially dangerous. Is this where we will find ourselves in the years to come?
Indeed, a very interesting read.