‘No poster and no flag’: An interview with Samit Basu

Gautham Shenoy November 11, 2017 12 min

I recently attended a session in Bengaluru that aimed to introduce science fiction to people who’d like to get into the genre. Post the talk, a member of the audience asked the speaker about science fiction from India, and the name that the speaker came up with – obviously – was Samit Basu. And everyone present nodded their heads in recognition of the name and his books. I say ‘obviously’ because here’s a writer who needs no introduction to Indian readers of SF (and non-SF). The author of the Gameworld Trilogy and the metahuman duology, Turbulence, and Resistance, Samit Basu has been involved with comics, also worked on comics, written fiction for young readers, worked on a project on Indian SF, and is a much-invited, and popular figure at book launches and literary events.

What better brain to pick then, to get further insights into the contemporary SF scene in India? So it came to be that New Worlds Weekly (NWW) recently caught up Samit Basu to know about his views and perspectives on his work, and the state of play in SF from India, and SF fandom.

NWW: Mention Indian SciFi, and by that I mean SciFi from India and/or by Indian authors, and your name invariably pops up. Most often, only yours. How does it feel then, being the poster-boy of Indian sci-fi or should I say flag-bearer?

Basu: You should say neither: there is no poster and no flag.

I started being called a SciFi author in 2003, when I published a fantasy novel. I tried explaining the differences between sci-fi and fantasy in interviews, but got called a SciFi author anyway. So in order to feel like less of a fraud, I started writing sci-fi too. Short stories in anthologies in India and abroad mostly, and I think the Turbulence books count as sci-fi (metahumans in the future, ethics of, and giant robots get me a pass). And now the sci-fi/fantasy divide is of even less consequence than it was fifteen years ago.

I feel really good when I hear from readers – especially readers who became writers, or storytellers in other media – that the books made a difference to them. These, apart from those rare moments when you feel like you’re writing well, are the absolute best moments you can have in this line of work.

There is definitely a certain satisfaction to knowing that because Simoqin did well critically and commercially in India, it opened the doors for more SF and fantasy books in India. And Turbulence selling to the US/UK out of India in 2012, and being received well by critics made that journey possible for other Indian writers in the space, i.e. you could now be an international writer of more than lit-fic from out of India. These are very selfish personal satisfactions, though. But they all feel good.

NWW: As someone who’s interacted with SF authors and fans around the world, what is the biggest difference you find between India and elsewhere with respect to SF fandom?

Basu: SF publishing worldwide is community-based. Festivals, conventions, a lot of discussion online and offline, mature and varied means of publishing from magazines to books. There are ways for new writers to reach readers without being featured in mainstream media, for writers and readers to meet, and for new writers to meet old ones. Genre-specific periodicals, genre-specific publishers, editors, promotion and sales teams, with a genuine respect for the work. Careers that can cross media, intersecting with films, TV, gaming, new media. And a massive reader community spreading the word, influencing taste, giving pretty much live feedback, pointing out what’s wrong. It’s a whole other universe and I’m glad to have had a very slight experience of it.

When there is a community and a general sense of growth, writers can be confident and focus on making their own work better and helping other people move forward, instead of competing with other writers. I’ve met good people. I’m eager to go back. Of course, there are huge problems with the SF community as well, but there is a community, and it’s even becoming more inclusive and diverse, rather than the white-male space it was until quite recently.

All of this took several generations to build, of course. So it’s a bit unfair to compare, but the biggest difference is that this community doesn’t exist in India. It will exist only when there is work of sufficient quantity and quality delivered regularly enough to sustain its interest, but ironically the lack of this community’s existence is a big factor in the lack of this work’s existence. It’s a dragon-egg situation.

NWW: There is no dearth of sci-fi fans and readers in India. So what is it that you think prevents publishers – here or elsewhere – from seriously investing in Indian science fiction authors? What can Indian sci-fi readers do more of, to support Indian sci-fi?

Basu: Another dragon-egg situation. Publishers abroad will invest seriously in Indian science fiction authors when they think they know exactly how to try to sell large quantities of their books, which will happen after they invest seriously in Indian science fiction authors. All of publishing is in turmoil, and this is not a hill anyone’s going to want to make their last stand on.

Or after one Indian science fiction author becomes a huge hit abroad with a mixture of good work, good timing and good luck, and actively encourages others after her or him. Which is not predictable. Chinese sci-fi has existed for decades before Cixin Liu, but it’s entering an international boom period only now. Arab SF, Afrofuturism, Southeast Asian SF are all well ahead of us at this point.

Or after we enter a post-race post-country utopia which is somewhere between now and Star Trek: The Motion Picture featuring Persis Khambatta. We need one year where three books by three different Indian authors are legitimate hits, and spark enough of a trend to start a larger conversation. We are certainly closer to this than we were a year ago.

In India, no one knows what’s going on in publishing, certainly not the people in publishing, which makes any kind of analysis quite difficult. There’s a decent amount of sci-fi being published, no one’s putting any effort into selling it, so no one gets to hear of it

In India, no one knows what’s going on in publishing, certainly not the people in publishing, which makes any kind of analysis quite difficult. There’s a decent amount of sci-fi being published, no one’s putting any effort into selling it, so no one gets to hear of it, so the books disappear, and publishers reject the next lot. What you need to break this cycle is a writer who’s a genius at sales and marketing. The problem is that there’s no guarantee this writer will be any good at writing, so readers try out some bad book that’s been pushed down their throats and then decide they hate all of Indian sci-fi. I don’t blame Indian publishers, the market is what it is, and there’s no shortage of talented, hardworking and good humans in the industry. But the global breakthrough moment of Indian SF publishing is going to come from writers and readers, not publishers.

What can Indian scifi readers do? As a writer, I’m very reluctant to ask readers to change their behaviour in any way at all, because that’s not what the deal is. Just try and remember – and this is for any reader, not just an Indian or sci-fi reader – that the only way good books survive is through word of mouth, so if you read a book and like it, tell your friends about it. There are a hundred different ways you can help writers, or a genre, or the whole field, but all of those take time and effort, so should be voluntary. Just tell one friend.

NWW: In 2006, you did a project on Indian SF. What was your biggest takeout from that project? . Also, you’d written then that ‘The Trousers of Time, as tailored by Terry Pratchett, are where possible futures are divided, and right now there’s no way of knowing which leg Indian speculative fiction will be hurtling down.’ 11 years on, where do you see Indian SF going?

Basu: The biggest takeout from that project was that a lot of the people I wrote to out of the blue were supremely generous with their time and thoughts, and that people with shared interests should be generous to one another. Not that this was a blinding revelation, but it was nice to see it in practice.

Indian speculative fiction is going to good places. There are many wonderful writers still writing speculative fiction out of India despite there being no particular incentive to do so. I see Indian names in international anthologies all the time. There’s now enough talent in the country to bring out at least one really fat, good speculative fiction anthology, though we are several years away from this.

All that is very well and good, you say, now say something with actual meaning.

Samit Basu in discussion with Gautham Shenoy at a FactorDaily sci-fi meet up

Okay. Let me try make some actual predictions.

First, because of Ishiguro and Atwood and Murakami and Mitchell and other such superstars, literary and specfic barriers are now solidly broken. So there will be more specfic from the litfic side coming out of India and the diaspora.

Second, if translation keeps improving, and this trend solidifies, imagine writers like Vivek Shanbag and Perumal Murugan doing dystopian fiction?! Well, they sort of already do, but with more traditionally speculative elements. And people from around the country have told me there’s amazing specfic in their languages, I’d love to read translations.

Third, from the more popculture side of things, there’s going to be an avalanche of action-fantasy aimed at Next Bahubali adaptations. Some will be good. Probably not the Bollywood ones, but some. So we’re looking at the growth of something that could, one day, be compared to Chinese or Japanese multimedia fantasy/scifi storytelling, and hopefully that will include books as well. 70% Mythsploitation, but 30% original, and that’s where the good stuff will be.

Fourth, within the next decade we’re also going to see an American author of South Asian origin write some kind of trailblazing specfic hit that becomes a major Hollywood thing. In the YA space you can already see authors like Roshani Chokshi and Sabaa Tahir heading in that direction.

NWW: Apart from books by Samit Basu, what’s your Top 5 essential Indian SF reads?
Basu: This is a horrible question to ask someone who works in any field. Rank other people in the same field? Especially in the post-Google world? Also where do I start? I only read in 2 languages, there are some 5,000, there is no comprehensive information list about either old books or new books. Also, even among the work I know, several of the books were marketed as lit-fic, several works I consider speculative are by writers who would consider it beneath their dignity to be on a spec-fic list because they are Hi-Fi, and they all Google themselves every day even though they are old people.

I only read in 2 languages, there are some 5,000, there is no comprehensive information list about either old books or new books. Also, even among the work I know, several of the books were marketed as lit-fic, several works I consider speculative are by writers who would consider it beneath their dignity to be on a spec-fic list

Also, I only know a little bit about novels, but there is also short stories, poetry, fanfic, novellas, novelettes, novelendus, demagorgons, comprehensive lists are impossible. Also what about things like Amir Hamza, or any number of children’s specfic works, or comics, or….

Anyway, so. Here goes. Leila by Prayaag Akbar, The Devourers by Indrapramit Das, The Wildings by Nilanjana S Roy, Harvest by Manjula Padmanabhan, Dark Things by Sukanya Venkatraghavan, Immortal by Krishna Udayasankar, Sultanpur Chronicles by Achala Upendran which is out next year I think, Anantya Tantrist by Shweta Taneja, The Beast with Nine Billion Feet by Anil Menon, a short story collection called Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some of Them Have Wings by Kuzhali Manickavel, The Competent Authority by Shovon Chowdhury, The Liar’s Weave by Tashan Mehta, and The Select Nonsense of Sukumar Ray, ideally the Sukanta Chaudhuri translation.

NWW: When can we expect the next Samit Basu book? What’s it going to be about?
Basu: I’ve been working on it for over a year, but I still have no idea when I’m finishing or when it’s out. Both the book and the doing of it are set in the near future.

NWW: It’s practically a New Worlds Weekly tradition now to give out copies of good books under discussion, or of the author in question, and in keeping with that, we’d like to give away copies of Turbulence & Resistance. But we’d like to make it a contest instead of a lucky draw this time. So, could you give NWW readers a question that they’d have to answer to win copies of these two books?
Basu: ‘Name at least one Indian SF work you will be reading in 2037.’

Well, that’s it for the interview. Thank you, Samit Basu! That was indeed illuminating.

And you heard the question, dear readers. Tweet us your answer(s) with the hashtag #NWWonFD or post your entry in the comments section below by the end of Thursday, 16 November, with details on what Indian SF work you’d be reading 20 years from now. Wish you all the very best!

Live long and prosper!