The City Inside
by Samit Basu
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted May 30, 2022
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Thanks to Net Galley for the e-ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. At the time of request I don't think I had heard of Basu before, other than possible online promotion for The City Inside, to be published June 7 by Tordotcom. I may have thought it was a debut novel, but it isn't, and it's not a new one either, having been released in India in 2020 under the title Chosen Spirits. Basu was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1979, and currently splits his time between Delhi and Mumbai. He has published several other novels, graphic novels, short stories, and children's books, as well as writing and co-directing the Netflix India film "House Arrest." He describes this as anti-dystopian, which is partially correct, although that does not mean it is utopian. I have found no information concerning sequels, which is disappointing, since so many things are teased (the title for instance) but not resolved.
Positives are a smooth, propulsive narrative style, interesting characters, and an all too believable scenario. I know I should be more aware of political and cultural activities in various countries, but most of what I know about current events in India I get from a few other writers I follow on Twitter. As with many other countries, the US included, strong nationalistic fervor is wreaking havoc. India is not by any means the only country with a strong caste system, but it is one that is well known. Throw in immigration and corporate investments from other countries, conflicts would be inevitable. I don't think a specific date was mentioned, but it seems to be near future, perhaps twenty years, maybe as little as ten. There are mentions of a pandemic, although that might be a later one, not the one we're living in now. Incidents in 2024 and 2026 are referenced, but the ones everyone knows as the Years Not To Be Discussed may have come later. It is apparent many people have died, from that pandemic, from climate disasters, as well as government (and civilian) pogroms against lower caste groups, and different immigrant groups.
Leftist activism is mostly underground, on the dark web, coded within virtual reality games, with only occasional public protests. Multiple new technologies exist, one being an electronic personal assistant dubbed Narad, from the Hindu sage, a travelling musician and storyteller who carries news and enlightening wisdom. We first read of that when Joey (Bijoyini) is out for her morning run on the way to her parents' house. Narad tells her of the weather, smog and allergy conditions, as well as warning her of an upcoming nearby protest, including the projection of violence expected. Joey is a Flowstar Reality Controller. Flows are like a combination reality show, Instagram feed, and YouTube influencer channel. Her primary client is Indi, who also happens to be her ex-boyfriend from college. There is frequent debate as to who is the boss, the Flowstar or their Controller. Joey considers herself the boss, although she is content to work from behind the scenes, even allowing others to take credit for her ideas and concepts. While partially insulated from government scrutiny, she has to be careful not to express too many of her own opinions, since there is surveillance everywhere; her offices, all public places, probably her home, and any other house she might go to, her parents' included. Considered one of the best Controllers, she is in demand from other Flowstars and producers, but also from activists. She's not even aware someone in her parents' household has a connection to an underground figure.
Now the negatives. Almost everyone is self-centered, vain, and arrogant. Joey isn't that so much, but it's still frustrating when she denies the power and influence she has. It's evident most people are hiding their true feelings due to concern for their safety, and that includes those who are pro-government restrictions and those who want to fight against them. Joey is caught in between multiple factions, and while it seems she has made a major decision by the end, the resolution to that decision is not shown. It's a short book, a little more than 250 pages, and if there's not a sequel too much will be left to guesses. Frustration abounds with Joey refusing to make a choice, then when she does it's hard to know if it was the right one since it isn't resolved. Others make bad choices, but even if they're good ones, we still can't know for sure. We don't even know if some of them are still alive, or if they are, we don't know what they're doing. If there is a sequel I will read it, but if there isn't I might be inclined to lower my rating for this one.
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