I have been very excited to come around to this review slot in our schedule because I noticed on Goodreads that The City Inside, by Samit Basu, hasn’t been getting much love and I have some thoughts. Apparently, there is a severe case of illiteracy going around. Sitting at a strange length right between a novel and a novella, this story packs a punch. It explores the evolving future of India and examines how techno-futurism and social media might change in India’s unique cultural basin. It challenges current global trends and takes a hard look at our future under climate change and increasing societal inequity. But most importantly, it examines some possible solutions to the collapse of society as we know it that feel like they might make positive change without being naively optimistic. It’s a great story; I highly recommend you dig into it. The actual plot goes something like this:
Joey is a Reality Controller, something like a social media manager in a society where social media is everything, in near-future Delhi. She spends her workday managing the persona 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 cultural power, but everything comes with a price and she has little actual agency to change anything around her.
We also have Rudra, a recluse estranged from his wealthy and powerful family, now living in an impoverished immigrant neighborhood. When his father’s death reunites him with Joey, an old family acquaintance, he manages to get a job working on her team. The two of them are confronted with increasingly hostile work conditions, a world that doesn’t feel worth saving, and a mounting sense of dread and hopelessness. Can they use their tenuous positions of influence to actually make the world a better place for themselves and others?
About a year ago, I read The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson and was left wanting. Despite its grand acclaim, I found myself feeling like this book did a good job establishing the issues we face in the world, but its solutions felt a bit too ‘hand-wavy’ to hold much credence. With its smaller size, narrower focus, and less optimistic outlook, The City Inside walks a perfect line between despair and hope that makes you feel like you are gaining great insights into society’s issues and grounded ideas on how to fix them.
Joey, Rudra, and the supporting cast are windows into the problems that the current and next generations will need to tackle. Joey is the star of the show, taking the most time in the spotlight. Her frustration and despondence drip off the page and her problems feel both familiar and horrifying in their extrapolated identities. Understanding how our personal brands are becoming more and more how people sell themselves, how your ability to sell yourself is the only way to earn success, and how what sells is dictated by the unchanging rich elite shows a maze of unchanging oppression that sucks the life of anyone who tried to run it. Basu explores how as social media becomes increasingly large, stars push towards a median identity with little to no personality that appeals to the largest common denominator. The trick is to appear like you are meeting the unique needs of every consumer while convincing every consumer that they want the same thing to sell as much as possible with very little work. It’s a very dark story, but it’s smart and it’s important.
Simply put, The City Inside made me sad in my favorite way to be sad—the way that pushes me to think more and be more present in my life. Samit Basu has a keen mind with a talent for societal observation, wonderful prose, and a fast-paced and direct style of storytelling that doesn’t miss the details but gets right to the point. I wish there was a little bit more of it, the ending is slightly abrupt (though I enjoy it and its theatric flare). All put together it is worth your time, give this book a read.
Rating: The City Inside – 9.0/10
I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.