Samit Basu’s latest novel The City Inside is a bleak near-future dystopian exploration of Indian culture, social media, capitalism and all those other fun bits of facism that have been building in our world. It might have the honor of being the book that had myself and fellow No Page Unturned hosts Christina and Josh texting each other “Oooooof” the most. All that is to say that the book is quite good and worth the read, even if you have to watch several videos of puppies and kittens in between chapters.
Set in Delhi in a time never quite nailed down but implied to be in the late 2020s-early 2030s, The City Inside follows two main characters navigating an incredibly dark vision of the future in different ways. Joey is a “Reality Controller” (media manager on steroids) for her “Flowstar” ex-boyfriend and she’s damn good at it, having built Indi into one of India’s biggest stars. Rudra grew up in a wealthy family full of privilege and has spent his life rebelling against what’s expected of him: participating in the family business. Both find themselves working together in a system neither particularly enjoys, but it’s the one they’ve got.
Basu has created a world that feels depressingly realistic, a natural extension of many horrible trends in current times. Air and water pollution combined with oppressive global warming make going outside an exercise in self harm. Monkeys are fitted with zap collars and wifi boosters so they stay out of houses and keep the network up. Surveillance is everywhere–and I mean everywhere. And most chilling of it all, Basu makes sure to let us know that this is a world where the marches for science, democracy, black lives, and LGBT+ rights all happened. The people rose up, and they failed. It’s incredible world building in that it feels all very possible.
The worldbuilding is so good in fact, that it kind of overshadows everything else in the book. Joey and Rudra are fairly fleshed out but you still sometimes don’t quite understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. Part of this is because you’re getting so many world details thrown at you and you’re absorbing the bleakness of them while also trying to figure out what is happening in a scene. The heavy worldbuilding also means that the plot takes a long time to get going, as so many details have to be laid down before the reader has the context to grasp the plot. It also has zero comedic relief, which obviously is not a necessity and the book is clearly intended to not be light in any way, but it does make it a bit of a slog sometimes.
What works: incredibly detailed and thought-out world
What Doesn’t: plot and character development takes a back seat
Recommended Listening: synthwave mixes on YouTube
The City Inside reminded me of William Gibson’s Neuromancer in many ways, and not just because I was confused a lot of the time. There was plenty of technology involved but it did all make sense as evolution of current technology trends. There were even a few things that I wouldn’t mind having, if they weren’t linked to a horrific eternal surveillance state. That might actually be one of the sicker realizations of The City Inside, the part where I could see myself living in this world because Basu makes it seem so inevitable.
It’s also worth mentioning that as a white cis woman who grew up in a primarily white part of Canada, I don’t exactly get a lot of the cultural nuances present in The City Inside. Basu certainly has written it well enough that I understand the broad strokes of what is going on: the commentary on the evolution of the caste system and India’s place in the world. But absolutely there are things that probably went way over my head and I didn’t even notice.
The City Inside is out now and is a great read but also don’t beat yourself up if you start it and can’t stick with it. Like a lot of art it makes you feel things and those things are not always nice. There’s often this idea with reading that it needs to be deep and academic, and if you aren’t enjoying if you just didn’t “get it.” That’s not what we’re about here at Geekly, Inc. Reading is supposed to be enjoyable, and while sometimes that involves getting into some Deep Shit it’s also perfectly acceptable to say to yourself “I’m not enjoying this” and go listen to the sound of a baby’s laughter.