As the coronavirus pandemic unfolds like a dystopian novel, writer Samit Basu has an odd balm for nerves: an “anti-dystopian” book. In his new release, Chosen Spirits , the author of the GameWorld Trilogy fantasy novels and the Turbulence series of superhero books turns his attention to the near future.
Chosen Spirits is his effort to address the sense of loss that many feel about the India they once knew. “I had a realisation five or six years ago that I hadn’t written anything close to the world I actually live in. There was a definite desire to [do so],” says Basu, over the phone.
A world of possibilities
The new novel is set in the late 2020s, when ‘Smartatts’ are tattooed on your wrist — to sense and control every movement and emotion. Smog masks have become essential accessories. Home cleaning crews install spy cams on the sly. News is a lie and no one can be trusted. Why does he call it anti-dystopia? “While I am trying to look at what happens in the near future, there is an attempt to find hope in it. The world it describes is actually easier to live in than the world we are actually looking at 10 years from now. It is the best case scenario,” he explains.
It is also uncomfortably close to reality. Unlike the most compelling science fiction books, such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and George Orwell’s 1984 , that imagine the world from a greater distance, Chosen Spirits looks at the situation we are already in. Yet, it is uncannily prophetic.
Confined by reality
It begins with Joey, a 25-year-old “reality controller” — a professional image-builder in charge of the livestream of celebrities — chancing upon a floral kolam with embedded hashtags. It is an invite to a protest against the evacuation of a slum. She is not new to protests: she has memories of the chants at Shaheen Bagh against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Since then, Delhi has settled into an eerie, tech-obsessed chamber of darkness. A narrow stream of light hints at a revolution. When Joey takes her childhood friend, Rudra, under her wing, a series of events, including a sex scandal, threatens to reset power dynamics as things spiral out of control.
Writing the book proved to be a massive exercise in restraint. Basu couldn’t “go wild”, unlike in his other fantasy writing, and reality often played spoilsport. “Something I had set three to four years into the future ended up happening the week after I wrote it!” he says. Like workers being shuffled out of neighbourhoods, the sudden hyper surveillance, student protests... “Current events also inspired new variations on the predictions. Basically, reality is badly plotted and poorly structured,” he quips. The last draft went out in January this year; but he doesn’t regret not being able to weave the current healthcare crisis into it — that would be a different book.
In Joey, who is torn between conforming and living a more meaningful life, we have a protagonist for the times holding up a mirror. Basu says he was inspired by people who seek fame and visibility all the time, and the relationship between those behind the scenes and the ones in front of the camera. Joey and Rudra are people with power and privilege, who could actually make a difference. Delhi, then, poised at the intersection of power, was an easy choice as the location.
Though the novel predicts a pandemic, he could not have predicted a release during a lockdown. It hasn’t dimmed the prospects of the book though, he feels. “It is all very strange. It is also appropriate because people are reading. The e-book topped the Amazon charts on the first day, but we don’t know when the print edition will be out,” says the writer, who splits his time between Delhi and Mumbai.
Last year, he wrote and co-directed House Arrest , a Netflix film. He is currently busy with another web project, a series based on one of his books, but he can’t reveal more at the moment. Writing for screen, he says, is much easier than writing a book. Basu is also working to expand on his first trilogy, the GameWorld series. Is a pandemic-inspired book on the cards? Not yet, he says. He is going to wait for this to pass before putting it on a page.
Chosen Spirits ’ e-book (S&S India) is available for ₹246 on amazon.in .