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JCB Prize shortlist 2020 | Samit Basu paints the best-case scenario for writers

In the last of a series of essays written exclusively for Lounge by writers shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature 2020, Samit Basu explores the art of storytelling in a post-truth, post-logic, post-meaning world

Writer Samit Basu.
Writer Samit Basu.

So it’s not like you needed my essay about the future of storytelling and the process of writing my latest novel to tell you this, but the world is careening merrily towards multiple-choice apocalypses and for once this country is right on trend, probably even a leading influencer, though typically we’d be happier if the whites were acknowledging this more. Sorry if you came to a piece about writing to get away from it all for a bit but what to do, this is what my book is about as well. Actually, it’s about people like me - like us, maybe? Sorry if not. People who still have the option of switching off for a bit, taking a break, looking away, maybe even sharing a happy picture or two. How do they cope? Do they seek happiness, peace, escape? Do they shut their eyes or open them wider? Do they change? Do they do what they can?

What a time to be alive, and what a time to be writing, when being able to make up stories for a living in this part of the world is revealed to be not the act of noble struggle I thought it was for the first decade or so, but an indication of ridiculous local privilege. It’s good, in many ways, learning to see what advantages you have, because then you can be grateful, especially if you have good people around you, instead of angry about what you lack. But how do you even begin to convince even yourself that your work is important or relevant or somehow special and people should give you time and money and attention in the middle of reading about the day’s menu of local horrors if they’re similarly sheltered, or just trying to survive the day if they’re not? How do you take this visible-from-space cocktail of rage, guilt, fear, denial and incoherence and try to brew a story out of it that anyone else might care about?

That wasn’t a rhetorical question, by the way. I have no idea.

That’s what storytelling is like in the present, in a post-truth, post-logic, post-meaning world. Whatever your medium, or genre, or industry, and the borders of any of these are somehow growing simultaneously more irrelevant and more rigid every day. The future of storytelling is unlikely to be very different. Yes, technology will bring change, that’s its function. Maybe you’ll be reading novels on your AR smartglasses, or watching films streamed directly into your eyeballs. In Chosen Spirits, I built something called the Flow, an amalgamation of social media, game livestreams, reality TV, news, a customisable, corporate, nonstop future-influencer-driven source of endless, multi-platform entertainment, commentary, embedded advertising and propaganda, and some version of that is on the cards, but there’s more to storytelling than these logistics. In the future, there will be more ways for more people to tell more stories, and more means to silence them. Some things will survive: the paperback novel, the movie, the screen-flexible serial show, the song, though exactly how you consume them will alter. But possibilities and potentials have always been limitless: stories depend on who’s telling them, who’s listening, who doesn’t care, and who doesn’t want these stories told, and once you’re over being dazzled by shiny new tools, what you’ll come back to is people. People, places, times, tools. The future of storytelling only really changes with social change, with the opening of doors and borders and opportunities, with real change in structures and infrastructures. Everything else is wordplay.

The front cover of Chosen Spirits, published by Simon & Schuster.
The front cover of Chosen Spirits, published by Simon & Schuster.

Chosen Spirits, a near-future novel set in Delhi a decade from now, began with anxiety, with a desire to attempt to map, within the safe, logic-defined framework of fiction, what the hell was happening around me. A background in two fields that deal with huge assumptions, speculative fiction and the social sciences, meant that overambitious world-building was always on the cards. Since we live in a choose-your-own-reality present and even the past is wholly fluid now, the future seemed like the calmest place to set this work - and the future is not calm, but it’s fascinating. Two years of research later, I found myself with a mountain of notes about the next fifty years, and absolutely no confidence that the tech/climate-change/automation/migration-led work of science fiction I was planning had any real-world links in it at all. It was far too driven by collective common sense, which is a charming concept but way too fantastical. It was far too reliant on individual protagonist ability to actively change the world, overcome systems, find solutions, save everything. None of it worked, none of it was feasible, since the constraint involved that it had to evolve from today’s news. Not that it’s speculative fiction’s job to accurately predict the future, but one should aim to encapsulate at least a good sense of present-day fears and aspirations. It is hard to do that in the middle of cognitive dissonance and mass gaslighting, when every day brings you news that should have had vast consequences but simply disappears in the next onslaught, where you’re actively encouraged to feel isolated, confused, lost. This is something science fiction writers around the world have been saying for the last few years - skip past the near future. No model is adequate. And it’s people from relatively orderly, some-systems-still-standing parts of the world saying this. In India? Please. Write about these savage years later, or from far away, with some distance. I swear I tried to write a best-case scenario book, full of hope, entertainment and optimism, with privileged protagonists. Pretty much all the reviews called it dystopian. I guess it was the constant surveillance inside your house or something, who can tell.

Publishing this book in the middle of the pandemic has been a constantly surprising experience, and one I hope I survive and don’t have to repeat (the pandemic, not the publishing). So much of publishing is about conformity: we all pretend it’s not a multi-directional popularity/influence contest, but you can’t sell anything unless it’s familiar. Each medium, each genre, each region, each platform has its own tropes and rules and hierarchies and trends: each in its own way is efficient at exclusion and apathy, each is slow to change, or welcome outsiders. Other industries that have higher budgets and more fraught production timelines often have to be brutally upfront (except during promotions) about their exclusions and checklists - in book-world, many of the walls remain invisible, the visa forms unarticulated.

If I could push towards a future of storytelling, it would be one with fewer gatekeepers and privilege-enforcers, more door-openers and experiments. Across storytelling media, a future with more transparency, less performativeness, more experiments, fewer cliques, better contracts, less tokenism, more collaboration, less crab-in-bucketing. Our real-world future contains enough division and prejudice and conformity: replicating that in storytelling has always been unnecessary, but in a world which is discovering new ways of enhancing inequality every minute, not fighting inequality in storytelling becomes actively dangerous. There’s a lot we stand to lose, too many micro-cultures, new voices, alternate visions that will be erased as monocultural conformities overwhelm us all. We’re going to need a lot of empathy, and a lot of imagination, to get through this. Sorry again, but this is our best-case scenario.

Samit Basu is an Indian novelist, film director and screenwriter, best known for his fantasy and science fiction work. His latest novel, Chosen Spirits, is on the shortlist of the JCB Prize for Literature 2020.

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