The City Inside

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in June 2022.

This was… incredible, and devastating, and gloriously written. And I’m not sure I have the words to properly explain how and why.

Firstly: if you’re looking for an entirely straightforward, narrative-driven story, this is not for you. If you’re interested in character and world development and fabulous prose (and a narrative that still has me thinking), then you’re looking at the right book.

The first few chapters are all about setting up the world. It’s the mid 20th century, I think; and it’s Delhi; and things are both recognisable and completely unfamiliar. Joey is a Reality Controller at a Flowco; she has a smartatt on her wrist that monitors her health and suggests cat videos when she’s stressed, and she regularly has to wear a mask when she’s out and about. Confused? I was, a bit, when I started; but I was also intrigued and rapidly sucked in (and it took me a couple of seconds to understand ‘smartatt’ as ‘smart tattoo’ and then I was very impressed with Basu. Also terrified). The key thing to get your head around is the Flow, which takes the current ideas of infotainment and reality tv and influencers and life-casting and making it more massive, more pervasive, more curated and… generally just More. This is the big thing that’s both familiar and not.

As an Anglo Aussie, I’m the first to admit I don’t know all the ins and outs of current or past Indian political history, nor the concerns people might have for future directions. That’s a big part of the background here: Joey’s parents were involved in protests and suffer the consequences; things are unsettled and maybe tyrannical in Delhi and perhaps across the city. There are ongoing protests and various groups being oppressed. On the one hand, I am quite sure I missed a fair bit of political nuance that someone living in Delhi would just pick up almost without thinking (like a reference to politicians and onions for me). And that’s just fine: there are always different experiences for different readers. Because even without that political knowledge, I could understand enough about the tensions to know that this is a world I wouldn’t want to live in, with its fear of cameras everywhere and no trust of the government. And just to show how bitter things are: “her parents didn’t know whether to blame the pogrom or the pandemic, because they’d known the end times were coming but hadn’t known they’d be multiple choice” (p6).

The story follows Joey and colleagues and delves into the world of a Flowstar as well as tapping on parts of the broader world. Most people are out for what they can get for themselves and their families; some people are trying to buck the system; there is a massive gap between the haves and havenots. Much of the book is about following the characters and experiencing their lives… in much the same way that they themselves are producing a Flow for people to experience. Which makes me reflect in some horror on the explicitly voyeuristic nature of fiction and may send me into a tailspin if I get too worried about the privacy of fictional characters.

The writing is an absolute treat. It’s dense, in the descriptive and absorbing sense; it’s deeply evocative; and still entirely readable. I enjoyed every minute of the reading even while I was completely horrified by the experiences of the characters.

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