'Writing is a field where the only victory is survival'
Author and filmmaker Samit Basu's new book is a peek into a future born out of our present realities
Imagine a world where being a reality controller is, in fact, a professional role. In his new science fiction novel, Chosen Spirits, author Samit Basu assigns this role to his protagonist Joey. Set in the future, the book examines the bleak landscape of the Indian capital through its fictional characters. It is a world where truths are curated and independent thought is under scrutiny. Science fiction elements have been tempered to comment on a future fraught with possibilities emerging from our current realities. Here, Basu, who's been exploring the fantasy and science fiction genres through his writings, talks about the process that informed his writing and storytelling.
How did you come to imagine the future that is the setting of Chosen Spirits?
Things have been so chaotic in my part of the world over the last few years that I thought the best possible use of any science-fiction skills I had would be to figure out what the future might bring. So, I started reading about the various multiple-choice disasters awaiting us, and suddenly realised two years had passed. I also didn't want to feel, later, that I'd lived through this period of our history without writing about what I saw and felt, even from a point of view that was a decade in the future.
In the past, you spoke of how events in India's political landscape would alter your story. Could you describe the process?
Mostly frantic rewriting! While it isn't the job of near-future fiction to accurately predict anything, just to present a vision of how things could be, I did want to create something that could be a best-case scenario for my city, which meant imagining how a lot of the events happening now would play out to affect the lives of people similar to the book's characters a decade later. But then, the news has been so drastic that every other day something would happen that would steer all of reality into a different direction, or definitely have long-term repercussions on anyone seeing it. And it became an interesting challenge for me to try and include all of that into the backstory of my novel. Which meant I was constantly rewriting this book for three years, while the news kept acting as spoilers to my world-building. A lot of the news events of the last two years, for example, were things I'd predicted four years ago when planning the book, but they were coming ahead of time. And the more I imagined my characters at the age they were in the book, the more it was clear that a lot of the things happening now - in their imagined mid-teens, a decade ago - would have changed them fundamentally as people.
Incisive analysis of society and politics is at the heart of Chosen Spirits. Why the conscious underplaying of science fiction?
I was aiming to write something that was set not too far in the future, and so I didn't want to make the science fiction too outrageous. It's similar to the exercise where, if you think about what life was like a decade ago, you'd be amazed at how many parts of your daily life just didn't exist, though strangely it doesn't feel like it could be that different. I didn't want to introduce so much change that people would be forced to become fundamentally different from the way they are now, so that the politics and society in the novel could just be a slightly exaggerated version of what they are today. I have to say there is a lot of science fiction in the book, except it all comes together at once, and it is supposed to feel very natural, a slow encroachment on our present-day reality, which really would have looked like science fiction even if you were looking at it from the 80s.
You've come a long way since The Simoqin Prophecies. One knows the perks, but what are the perils of knowing more of the world?
This is a very interesting question. I think the older you grow, the more you're absolutely sure about some of your values, and the more you begin to understand about the limitless depths of your own ignorance. A version of this applies to writing as well - you learn so much more about both the obstacles you face in your craft and your career, but also about all the privileges you had to be a writer in the first place, a lot of which you weren't aware of when you started. Literature, and culture in general, has changed faster and faster in the 17 years I've been writing for a living, so this is definitely a field where the only victory is survival, not just in career terms but also in terms of the desire to keep working.
Covid-19 has altered our world. Amid all the crises you already tackle in the book, how would this have played out?
I'd like to imagine that the pandemic was part of the turbulent period of history described in the book as the years not to be discussed. I do refer to it a few times in the book, but I'm glad I submitted the final version before the lockdown began, else I'd have been tempted to start yet another draft. I hope the tumultuous experience of releasing a book in lockdown is a once-in-a-lifetime experience - not because of the publishing, but because of the lockdown itself. No more pandemics, please.