Every once in a while, you come across a book so powerful that reading it feels like deep cleansing your soul. Sometimes this takes you by surprise because it’s not something you expect in that genre. As a rather eclectic reader, I’ve always thought that academics, literary critics and the makers of public opinion in general did a bit of disservice to humanity by disregarding the artistic value of the so-called pulp fiction genres, be it comics, detective fiction, science fiction or fantasy. Faced with works of undeniable philosophical or aesthetic depth, revisionism and denial kicked in.
Thus, purists insisted that Watchmen (Alan Moore; art by Dave Gibbons; colourist John Higgins) was a graphic novel even though Moore himself frequently rejected the term. Somewhere after leaving university, I’ve learned to ignore genre debates.
Which is a good thing in the context of Samit Basu’s recently published Chosen Spirits (available on Kindle right away and in hardback somewhere in the indefinite future), because here is a book that could be called genre-bending if one didn’t suspect the author doesn’t approve of labels. Instead of genre gimmicks, this book demands attention and intelligence from its reader, right from the opening line:
Sometimes Joey feels like her whole life is a montage of randomly selected, algorithm-controlled surveillance-cam clips, mostly of her looking at screens or sitting glazed-eyed at meetings.
Joey, the protagonist (insofar as a book this radical can be said to have such a glibly defined role), who we discover a few pages later is actually Bijoyini Roy (why did I not see that coming?), is a Reality Controller whose parents call themselves reality deniers (or perhaps, reality facers). In reality, Joey in her late twenties doesn’t control reality, nor do her parents in their fifties face reality enough to deny it.
In the grim prescience of Chosen Spirits, neither act seems possible. Not when reality is reshaped every second by Flows (curated video content shared by Flowstars with a hierarchy of Influencers, Trailblazers, and Icons; imitated by Flowjackers) that are run by Flowfunders, and nobody has an attention span longer than cute cat videos. Sounds familiar?
So many things sound familiar in this book which is pitch-perfect in throwing sci-fi ideas at the same speed as 64-colour screenshirts that scroll through personal moodboards and sponsor logos. (Do these exist? Can I get one?) From virtual conferencing with instant rotoscoping of avatars (no worries about colleagues finding out your blazer-and-tie ensemble features boxer shorts or less) to drone-painted vandalism on the giant bottom of a Chinese-manufactured Indian pride icon that towers over the Delhi end of the Yamuna bridge defying mobs from the wildlands, every once in a while you have to stop reading to take deep breaths and wonder whether this has already happened or is still near-future.
When it comes to organ-farming, lynching and policemen on patrol among mobs, armed and ready to do absolutely nothing should violence erupt, you don’t even need to Google. So much so that when the author writes in the Acknowledgements that this book is not set in a dystopia, but in a best-case scenario, you’re not quite terrified. You, who are living in what might soon become the Years Not to Be Discussed, saw this coming.
What you may not have seen coming is the fiery spirit of DesiBryde and a certain E-klav. To say anything else here would be a spoiler so I’ll leave you with a nostalgic reflection and a grievance.
Of older dystopias
Nostalgia, first. There are two books and one series that I swore to never ever read a second time. The books were George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, and the comic book series was Preacher (created by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon). The last took stomach-churning violence to such improbable heights that there were images it has taken me years to remove from memory (consider yourself warned). But all the while, there was a sense of distance – social, cultural, geographical. The horror is graphic (literally) and triggering, but not in one’s immediate neighbourhood.
Orwell, on the other hand, left the horror to your imagination. In some ways, a more harrowing experience. But the dystopian future of 1984 and the political satire of Animal Farm were clearly improbable from the sanitised perspective of the sheltered life I led in the nineties when I read these books. (This was ironic given that I was living in a Communist state, but it was also a state of denial, and the nightmare of Big Brother’s constant surveillance was not easily imagined in the technologically-deprived India before the noughties.)
Despite the cocoon of privilege that prevented a personal connect, the books and the comics touched a nerve, awokening (pun intended) me to the depth of depravity that power can lead humans to, and the bleak realisation that ordinary people are weak, easily corruptible and cowed. Not a sliver of hope did either Orwell or Ennis leave; the much needed catharsis never comes.
Chosen Spirits is much, much kinder. It brings Orwellian dystopia and satire closer home with click-bait headlines that you may have read last week, its vision of technological surveillance is as soul-chilling as it is brilliant; and the violence without being graphic is relentless on your peripheral vision; but it also gives you mostly incorruptible, frequently idealistic, incredibly soft-hearted people, it gives you the kindness of strangers, and it gives you the hope of resistance.
Resistance not to the idea of a nation or to a particular government, but resistance to faceless cruelty, limitless oppression and the general pettiness of immeasurably wealthy corporates. And it does that knowing that you, Dear Reader, will probably fit at least one of these descriptors: entitled, young, upper-caste, upper-class, corporate-job holding, safety-seeking, liberal. You may never be able to do enough, but just the attempt, as Joey’s wonderfully wise mother says to “stand your ground, and hold on, instead of running away” is a good place to start.
What happens to...?
Which brings me, in the end, to my one grievance. I’m going to read this book again, end-to-end and in snatches, in the months to come. When I’ll need courage to change the things I can, strength to deal with the things I can’t change, and the wisdom to know the difference. But every time, I’ll wonder about the extended story arc of all the characters who became so real in just a few lines.
What happens to Rudra and Zaria, he of the traumatic viral video of his childhood and she of strength enough to challenge governments since her teenage years? What happens to Raja who grew up in Madhupur, the cyber-crime hub of Jharkhand? What happens to the paint-propelling Sharmila, and the soon-to-be-Iconic Indi, and the possibly wanderlusting sapiosexual futurist Tara? In short, I hope the author has a sequel planned already.
Samit Basu has been lauded as a wordsmith and even called the poster boy of science fiction and fantasy in India, but Chosen Spirits is neither simple dystopian science-fiction nor straightforward satire. It is a book that is gently funny at times, cuttingly sardonic at other times, and breathes empathy at all times. It is a call for freedom in an age of puppy adoption shows.
Chosen Spirits, Samit Basu, Simon & Schuster India.