Sometimes it’s impossible to turn off your internal editor/writer brain when you’re reading, and while that can be horribly distracting, sometimes it’s not at all a bad thing. Samit Basu’s The City Inside (2020) practically leaped off the shelf of my local bookshop at me with a description that fired up my dormant Futurismic editorial instincts, and a first page that made me want to up my game. Happily, I can report that it lives up to that splashy first impression, an inventive, intense, and compelling read.
Set in near-future Delhi, The City Inside involves the entangled careers of Joey, a behind-the-scenes “reality controller” for an Indian livestreaming star, and her cousin Rudra, who ultimately goes to work for Joey after years of eschewing the life of his privileged family. The future Joey and Rudra navigate is a next-level complication of our own where social media has evolved from TikTok influencers to “Flow” celebrities, current climate disruption has dangerously escalated, and class warfare has taken on an insidious, clandestine turn. It’s on this last point that the plot hinges: through their culture-influencing work, Joey and Rudra get twisted up in the devious machinations of the elites financing the media ecosystem they support, and eventually see behind the veil of a sociopathic conspiracy, leading them to choose sides and find agency against it.
The City Inside is first-rate Mundane SF, boasting the idea-rich information density of Charles Stross at his most perverse, but ultimately with a keen ear for accessibility. Basu writes with infectious confidence, steeping his characters in a world unfamiliar less for its geography then for its dizzying technological transformation. But even when the noise overwhelms the signal, Joey and Rudra remain relatable, and the narrative throughline never blurs for long. This type of wild, accelerated futurism can be challenging, but The City Inside never forgets that it’s entertainment, merging intricate details, big ideas, and cautionary themes with just cracking good storytelling. I hadn’t heard of this author before this magical impulse-purchase discovery, but Basu is definitely on my radar now. A impressive piece of work!