I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“The City Inside” by Samit Basu is a science fiction novel set in Delhi, India in a not-too-distant future. The story is primarily about Joey, a young woman who has an extremely successful job as a reality controller: managing and editing the livestream content of her influencer ex-boyfriend Indi. However, her personal life pales in comparison; despite having a luxury apartment, she spends most of her free time sleeping at her parents’ house where her family carefully avoid saying anything controversial. Meanwhile, Rudra, the estranged son of a wealthy man who has been living incognito among struggling migrants, reconnects with his family at his father’s funeral. Avoiding his brother’s attempts to join the family business, when he bumps into Joey who offers him a job, he accepts. However, as Indi’s ambitions grow bigger and Rudra’s family interests begin to reveal their true nature, Joey and Rudra realise that corporate power and sinister conspiracies run much deeper than either of them could have possibly realised.
This was a richly conceived book with exceptional and completely plausible worldbuilding. Basu draws on contemporary sources of power and influence and imagines how they may have evolved a decade from now. Influencers have merged with reality TV: carefully curated content with fictionalised storylines and strategic advertising placements. Airborne-illnesses, increasing temperatures and air pollution have normalised mask wearing, filtered air and avoiding the outside. The setting in Delhi brings further layers of complexity and nuance; drawing on ethnic tensions, historical protests and political influence to create a conflicted present still grappling with caste, wealth and freedom of speech.
Joey was a really interesting character whose personality at work and personality at home seem almost completely incompatible, raising questions about how much her memory is influenced, and by whom. Joey is politically engaged enough and fluent enough in progressive discourse to be aware of her own moral shortcomings, and tries to make what little difference she can through her work. In contrast, Rudra’s attempts to completely distance himself from his family prove to be inadequate in counteracting the harm they are causing to society. However, any kind of political action is dangerous, and Basu pushes the reader to make up their own mind about what is right, what is wrong and what is understandable.
While I really enjoyed the setting and the character development, I did find the plot a little confusing. The book draws on cyberpunk traditions in science fiction and using digital spaces, avatars and social media to create and recreate reality, social connections and even business deals. However, between a meeting in one of these digital spaces, subject to surveillance on multiple levels, and the action really kicking off, I found it hard to keep track of exactly what was happening. Basu is quite a subtle writer, leaving a lot to the reader to interpret themselves, but when crucial plot items were happening I found that I was hoping for a little more clarity and a little less like scenes whipping by me in a speeding train carriage.
An intricate and highly original premise that conveys a lot but becomes a bit muddied towards the end.
Some books are timeless. Some books, it doesn’t matter how long ago they were written, you can pick up and relate to. There are some fantastic examples of science fiction and dystopian novels that were written decades ago if not centuries ago that are still readable today. Unfortunately, I just don’t think that William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” is one of them.
The Harper Voyager classic science fiction and fantasy hardcover edition that I found of “Neuromancer” is simply gorgeous. Just by looking at the cover you can tell that this novel was the origin of the term “The Matrix” and is a seminal work in the genre of cyberpunk. The plot starts out relatively simplely, although it is obsfucated somewhat by Gibson’s technique of hurling the reader bodily into the world he has constructed without any kind of context whatsoever. Case, a drug-addicted and despondant former computer hacker is working in a dystopian Japan as a low-level hustler. No longer able to “jack in” to The Matrix, a virtual reality cyberspace, after being punished for stealing from his previous employers, Case jumps at the opportunity to work for a mysterious man called Armitage and his attractive, bionic assistant Molly. Promising a cure, Armitage instead rigs Case’s body so that he can temporarily reaccess the Matrix for a certain amount of time before he is again disabled, and also so that he can no longer metabolise drugs.
What follows is a whirlwind; a confusing sequence of events that unfold all over (and, at points, outside of) the world. The longer Case works for Armitage, the more he starts to suspect that there are a number of conspiracies taking place concurrently in the real world as well as in cyberspace. I can’t really explain any further without giving too much away, but it reads a little like a crime thriller with a real cybernetic spin. Case is the quintessential anti-hero and is at once a likeable yet frustrating character.
This book is not an easy read. Although intended a fast-paced novel, it is actually rather slow going. Gibson has an incredible imagination and is able to conjure up all kinds of technologies and societies. Unfortunately, because the book is set out like a thriller, the reader doesn’t really have a lot of time to pause and visualise the world he has created. I found that I had to go back a reread passages again and again because I was missing things. While Gibson is no doubt extremely creative, I found that he wasn’t necessarily the most expressive writer. You get the sense that he can see clearly exactly what the world and the technologies are like, but he’s struggling a bit to find the words to convey exactly what’s going on. Every glimpse into a new thing is snatched and you barely have time to register what it is that you’re looking at before you’re whisked away to the next new thing. I found it really hard to visualise what was going on, which in turn made it hard to immerse myself into the book.
The other part that made it difficult is that this book was first published in 1984, and it shows. Although Gibson has envisioned some pretty spectacular forms of technology, he has appropriated the mediums for hosting information and programs that existed while he was writing to do so. The image of Case running around with a cassette player and “jacking in” to the Matrix by sticking nodes onto his head is at odds with how we understand, access and store data today. Reading it now, you feel a little lost and torn between two times: past and future. Technology has now far surpassed cassettes as a form of data storage, but while we have achieved cyberspace in the form of the internet, we are not quite at the level of being able to access it directly through our consciousnesses. For this book to make sense today, you really have to suspend your disbelief quite a lot. However I can appreciate that when it was written, it must’ve been right on the money.
“Neuromancer” is a super interesting, groundbreaking book that I think just hasn’t aged particularly well. If you’re into sci-fi and cyberpunk, give it a whirl, but do be prepared to be confused.