Joey and the guardians of the data galaxy: Review of Samit Basu’s ‘Chosen Spirits’

’Chosen Spirits’, set in a Delhi 10 years from now, is torn out of today’s headlines and channels the anxieties that vex the Indian liberal intelligentsia

June 13, 2020 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

In recent months, hundreds of cellphone masts have been burnt down by vigilantes all around the world. The arsonists were driven by viral videos propagating conspiracy theories that radiation from 5G networks causes the spread of the novel coronavirus.

You could call this an allergic reaction that the human race has developed to the future; a symptom of what sociologist Manuel Castells called “informed bewilderment,” the hallmark of our age. It is also a sign that we live in a science-fictional reality now. Only the literature of the imagination can capture what is happening all around us.

Samit Basu’s Chosen Spirits , set in a Delhi 10 years from now, therefore is a welcome addition to the ranks of Indian science-fiction. It is torn out of today’s headlines and channels the anxieties that vex the Indian liberal intelligentsia.

Years not to be discussed

We follow Bijoyini “Joey” Roy, a 25-year old “Associate Reality Controller” of something called the Flow. She manages the channels of a “Flowstar,” a kind of social media influencer on turbomode. The Flow is what would happen if Dr. Frankenstein decided to merge his Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram accounts, and threw in some Augmented Reality as well.

Joey meets Rudra, the dispossessed scion of a business house and soon they are plunged into a vortex of corporate espionage, feuding oligarchs, illegal medical tech, and hostile takeovers, all under an authoritarian overhang. Basu plays up one of science-fiction’s greatest strengths — it is a genre where world-building also forms a narrative, a relentless accretion of details like pixels forming the image on a HD display.

Staying just ahead of the bow-wave of the present means carefully following trends, to see which ones will persist. As Frederik Pohl once said “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile, but the traffic jam.”

In a casual aside we learn that JNU has been demolished and replaced with a giant mall with the “world’s largest air-conditioner,”

we see that RWAs have been weaponised, and American diners replaced with Sinofuturist-themed restaurants signalling shifts in global power. At a social gathering, a character meets “a neuromarketer, a flying warehouse distributor and a cognitive linguist, a memorial monument optimiser, a detention centre designer and a friend-renting social maven.”

Basu makes full use of the vantage point that sci-fi enables. Our now is their past, referred to as the “Years Not To Be Discussed”. We learn that Joey as a teenager attended the protests at Shaheen Bagh, “which now exists only in memory.”

Jugaadpunk aesthetic

There are encrypted kolams repurposed as QR codes, protests that come with bloodshed ratings (the worst kind of protest is “blood and no cameras”), a “Lakshman Rekha” firewall has sprung up around the country’s Internet, an AI assistant called Narad sends “lovable dog GIF blasts” depending on your mood. There are “augrels,” micro religions which, like a karmic Fitbit, track good deeds and enable you to unlock utopian cult retreats.

This is the territory of “Cyberpunk”, which emerged in the 1980s, boosted by the publication of William Gibson’s Neuromancer . Just as the Space Age was spluttering, the genre turned inward. Instead of the grand panoramas of space opera, there were now computers talking to each other, packets of data whispering across the lines, with the darkness between the stars lit up by “constellations of data.”

However, Basu’s cyberpunk milieu is firmly rooted in the culture which generated it. In the Western tradition, the lone protagonist, usually male, investigates a neon-drenched city; the Blade Runner films are an example of this template.

While here, it is a middle-class family, complete with domestic help, facing the usual problems — ageing parents, a younger brother who isn’t ‘settled’. Basu even posits a kind of “jugaadpunk” aesthetic in his depiction of the semi-formal cyberbazaars of Delhi. The novel brims with ideas though the narrative drives over some clumsy exposition dumps now and then.

Still there are lots of themes below the surface; one is that of “surveillance capitalism,” as defined by Shoshana Zuboff. The future, far from an utopia to aspire to, has itself become a commodity, “the behavioural futures market”, where our lives are recorded, then bundled and sold as data.

Basu is clear that “this book is set not in a dystopia, but in a best-case scenario,” which isn’t very comforting. But that is the job of science-fiction. Sometimes the very act of imagining a future is an act of rebellion.

The reviewer is a freelance journalist and graphic novelist.

Chosen Spirits; Samit Basu, Simon & Schuster India, ₹499

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