Dystopia is the default setting for future in Samit Basu’s new novel

Percy Bharucha | Updated on July 14, 2020

Mind games: Any good story has an aspect of yearning that the reader identifies with   -  ISTOCK.COM

Codes are hidden in kolam designs, hawks bring down drones and residents’ associations are tiny nations. Chosen Spirits is an indigenous sci-fi thriller with a political heart

* Chosen Spirits is a social commentary masquerading as a sci-fi novel

* Samit Basu deals with Delhi’s lust for power

Samit Basu’s Chosen Spirits is a social commentary masquerading as a sci-fi novel. In this seemingly innocent thriller, he manages to pack a critique about caste, a nuanced portrayal of Delhi’s recent protests against proposed citizenship laws and takes a stunningly horrifying look at our corporate future. He deals with Delhi’s lust for power and the walled cities of privilege that remain within us, hidden from plain sight. Amid this political dystopia, he even manages to sneak in ruminations on gender dynamics and power in the workplace.

Chosen Spirits / Samit Basu / Simon & Schuster / Fiction / ₹499


Any good story has an aspect of yearning that the reader identifies with; a yearning to return to a time, place, person, or a state of being. Basu, the author of the Gameworld Trilogy, employs this tenet masterfully. His sci-fi world is riddled with nostalgic artefacts of the past. His characters are weary and reminiscent, longing to return to the simple past — which is our present. Within this device, he manages to capture the yearning we have for a Delhi — or rather an India — that we want to return to.

Through the protagonist Joey and her parents, we get a glimpse of a middle-class family we can relate to; one that is constantly grappling with the ever-increasing demands of technology. Through them, Basu voices the angst of an entire generation that is coming to terms with policing their default setting of free speech and expression. The horror at the end of Chosen Spirits is Orwellian in nature. Basu manifests it in the perfect nexus of a capitalistic model set in a cyberpunk universe. The reader is reminded of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi thriller Blade Runner.

Basu’s world, however, is visually stunning in its Indian roots. A futuristic India with codes hidden in kolam designs, smart tattoos that detect biological cues, and hawks trained to bring down surveillance drones. It features Delhi monkeys that act as network boosters and RWAs which are tiny nations, each having raised their private army. Within this warring ecosystem, the criminal honchos seek to sell bodies and identities for profit, morph public opinion and chase immortality.

One of the primary obsessions of this future is the Flowverse, a hybrid social media channel on steroids. The Flowverse is led by Flow Stars — a sort of The Hunger Games scenario — where heroes are created, trained, managed, and monitored for profit. A top-ranking manager of this Flowverse is Joey, who handles one of its biggest stars — Indi; her designation as ‘Reality Controller’ is rather ironic as her own reality is steadily outside her control.

One of Joey’s closest friends is Rudra, the disowned son of one of the most powerful business families of Delhi. Rudra must battle his family’s multiple attempts to get him to rejoin their criminal empire.

Joey, Indi and Rudra must together foil their corporate overlords’ plans to sell public opinion and buy their digital identities for perpetuity. Joey’s role reminds us of the inescapable agony of The Truman Show, Peter Weir’s 1998 American sci-fi drama. The blurring between reality and the façade is heightened through the need to be always ‘on’, to be always performing. To the point that even the love that blossoms between Rudra and Tara, a singer, dancer and futurist, requires a virtual reality setting to exist.

What is perhaps unique to Chosen Spirits is Basu’s depiction of technology itself. He refuses to employ a moral position on how the singularity will treat us. Instead, he prefers to show in vivid, graphic detail the terrifying powers technology will grant to those in power. The power that is afforded by exploitation and caste. Basu, even in his futuristic depiction of India, does not shy away from painting its flaws. Caste, which is endemic to the country, finds a vital place in its futuristic avatar. He makes our future relatable by grounding it in our past.

What can perhaps be onerous for the reader is the frenetic pace of Basu’s world-building. In a single cab ride that Joey takes he covers drone graffiti artists, illegal residents being herded out of the colony by militia, protest sites being used as traps to identify dissenters, gamers being tricked into beating up senior citizens, an ad for an organ farm business, protest marches by farmers and nationalists, and an overeager AI called Narad. While this might work as a cinematic sequence, but it tends to tax the reader. There are too many tech thingamajigs that get distracting and serve little purpose apart from adding to the ambience. The novel also ends on a slightly underwhelming philosophical note, which gives the impression that there might be a sequel soon. But Basu does manage what can only be termed as the literary equivalent of a Marvel post-credits scene, which is quite eventful.

Basu’s Chosen Spirits is quite the unicorn, it lies at the intersection of indigenous sci-fi, a scathing examination of contemporary India, and a visual ode to the city of Delhi. This book rightfully cannot and should not be ignored.

Percy Bharucha is a Delhi-based freelance writer and illustrator

Published on July 14, 2020

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