For the first 22 pages of Samit Basu’s The City Inside (2022), I didn’t have a freakin’ clue what was going on. I followed Joey (Bijoyini) Roy around her parents’ house, as she interacted with her intrusive “wellness system”—think very needy FitBit on steroids—as she talked to her parents about the Years that Can’t Be Discussed, as she dodged her performative adolescent brother, who was constantly auditioning for a place in the Flow. I understood vaguely that social media was a big thing, that the “Flow” had replaced or evolved from “live-streaming” and that Joey had a job in some media area. I knew they were in Delhi and that things weren’t great there in many ways. I decided it must be several years in our world’s future, like maybe the 2040s or 50s. Basically, though, In Chapter One the book upended a puzzle box for a 2500-piece puzzle over my head and walked away.
Fortunately, in Chapter Two we see Joey go to work, and the corners of the puzzle came into view at least. Joey is an Associate Reality Controller for a high-profile Flow hit starring Indi, her former college boyfriend. She was a Senior Reality Manager up until a month ago when she was demoted for reasons that aren’t clear throughout the book (they may have been clarified at the end.) If you’re wondering why I kept reading after such a problem with the first chapter, well, “Associate Reality Controller,” and “Senior Reality Manager,” are two reasons. A book that can pack that much cynicism, humor and world-building into two job titles is catnip for me, and I resolved to keep on. In fact, during several points in the book, I was aware that I was reading for Basu’s prose and acerbic social observations, not the story or the characters.
When it comes to shaping (manipulating) the Flow to create a sympathetic character and build drama and tension, Joey is a genius. Even though she’s been demoted, she clearly runs Indi’s show. She is in demand from other Flow companies, abbreviated to Flowcos. Despite her popularity, Joey doesn’t acknowledge her influence or the power it gives her. She is interested in increasing inclusion in Indi’s Flow—I assume this is what led to her demotion. It isn’t until she offers old family friend Rudra Gupta a job that she and Rudra begin to uncover some massive scheme or conspiracy to use the Flow to cement the power of the power-elite. (Only it’s vaguer and more complicated than that.)
I like Rudra a lot. Once again, his point-of-view descriptions of a ceremony held to honor his father after his father’s death was deep, vivid and funny. Rudra is the “loser” of his family—he’d be a rebel if he put any energy into it. It is Rudra who accidentally uncovers a conspiracy against Indi. Meanwhile, Joey toils in the day-to-day, in the seemingly trivial task of auditioning a new Flow girlfriend for Indi.
When Joey and Indi reject a plan offered by their faceless Funders, the trap against Indi is sprung, and Joey must decide if she is going to acknowledge that there are greater forces at play. (The funders are literally faceless since all meetings take place in VR—another stroke of humorous genius in the story, as Indi and Joey comment on a private channel about how asinine the meeting is.)
Basu’s descriptions of a Delhi struggling after decades of political upheaval, in a post-pandemics (plural) era, with the ever-present threat of still-rising oceans, are concrete. Certainly the cattiness and social-climbing nature of the Flowstars and Flowstar-wannabes is well-done too. Generally, important characters appear with no foreshadowing or warning, just turn up and start being Important to the Plot, sometimes with one line about how Joey knew them in school or something. Basu relies on plot elements that felt tropey and dated; a rape allegation as a political weapon, body-shaming in childhood as a motivation for behavior chosen in adulthood. It seems to me that a book with so much exquisite external detail could have delved more deeply into characters’ interiors. Near the end, Rudra gets everything that’s going on explained to him over lunch by an expository character. I wish that happened in a more organic way.
And yet, I liked the book. Many of my challenges with it would be explained if this were the first book of a series set in this world. Even it it’s not, watching Rudra and Joey, who are very different people, make the choices they do was interesting and at time compelling.
Read this one for its imagination, for Basu’s funny, liquid, often-gorgeous prose, and for the questions it raises about the world.