The City Inside by Samit Basu science fiction book reviewsThe City Inside by Samit Basu science fiction book reviews The City Inside by Samit Basu

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.

Samit Basu

Samit Basu

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.

Published in June 2022. The City Inside, a near-future epic by the internationally celebrated Samit Basu, pulls no punches as it comes for your anxieties about society, government, the environment, and our world at large―yet never loses sight of the hopeful potential of the future. “They’d known the end times were coming but hadn’t known they’d be multiple choice.” Joey is a Reality Controller in near-future Delhi. Her job is to supervise the multimedia multi-reality livestreams of Indi, one of South Asia’s fastest rising online celebrities―who also happens to be her college ex. Joey’s job gives her considerable culture power, but she’s too caught up in day-to-day crisis handling to see this, or to figure out what she wants from her life. Rudra is a recluse estranged from his wealthy and powerful family, now living in an impoverished immigrant neighborhood. When his father’s death pulls him back into his family’s orbit, an impulsive job offer from Joey becomes his only escape from the life he never wanted. But as Joey and Rudra become enmeshed in multiple conspiracies, their lives start to spin out of control―complicated by dysfunctional relationships, corporate loyalty, and the never-ending pressures of surveillance capitalism. When a bigger picture begins to unfold, they must each decide how to do the right thing in a world where simply maintaining the status quo feels like an accomplishment. Ultimately, resistance will not―cannot―take the same shape for these two very different people.


  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.

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