Samit Basu Interview
By Charles Tan
Hi Samit! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, could you tell us about your latest book, Turbulence?
Thanks for having me on World SF, Charles.
Turbulence is a superhero novel. It’s set in India, Pakistan and London in the summer of 2009.
Passengers on a flight from London to Delhi discover after a few days that they have strange new physical abilities that correspond to their innermost desires. Our hero, Aman Sen, has become a cyber-demigod, capable of manipulating all communications networks. Uzma, an aspiring Bollywood star, now has infinite charisma. Vir, a third-generation Air Force pilot, can now fly. Tia, a housewife from the Indian North-East who got married and had a child too early, can now split into multiple bodies and live several lives at once.
But of course there are other people on the plane who can now use their powers for gaining, well, power, and the book follows a group of fellow passengers who have to unite to survive and figure out how to stop this whole phenomenon to turning into a comic-book slugfest. They’re also in a part of the world that needs drastic change much more than it needs the status quo protected. The book aims to be as real as possible, despite all the superhero shenanigans in it, and is fundamentally a novel about our world, here and now, and about two questions that aren’t necessarily superhuman questions: What would you do if you got what you really wanted? And how would you feel if you were given the power to change the world?
What’s the appeal of the tropes of the superhero genre for you?
I picked superheroes largely because they’re everywhere now, and if you suddenly found yourself possessing miraculous physical ability, you’d have no choice but to think of superheroes, given their omnipresence in global pop culture. It’s also because superheroes have been around for so long now, and so much has changed in the last eight decades. So it was great fun looking at the tropes and the stereotypes, and seeing how they would play out in the real world, in today’s world: what people would do today in terms of things like costumes, secret identities, lairs, missions, and so on. I think for dedicated writers and readers of SF and fantasy in any form, there is much joy to be found in both celebration and revision of tropes.
At its core, the very idea of the superhero – an individual with extraordinary powers whose actions affect society at large – is modern myth-making, is the core of pretty much every SF or fantasy story. But what makes superheroes unique is that most superhero stories are commentaries on the world around us. The ideas that relate superhero stories to the world around us aren’t implied, aren’t something readers have to find on their own – they’re explicitly shown on the page. And the wants, the ethics, the very nature of what would be right or wrong in today’s world, how it would react to the presence of the physically different, the extraordinary, the immediately celeb-hood worthy – all these issues interested and challenged me.
What were the challenges in writing Turbulence?
Well, two very definite aspects of this answer relate to the medium involved and the publication process, so let’s leave them for the questions you’ve asked later. Apart from these, very little, actually – one was trying to map out the real-world consequences of a superhero origin event on a global scale – it’s always been frustrating for me while watching or reading superhero stories how small their universes are, how limited the results of their apparently world-changing actions – but fortunately there’s just so much research material available now, and so much interesting technology out there to help you, that the whole process was not as mind-destroying as I was afraid it would be.
How do you decide which medium best fits the project? For example, in the case of Turbulence, why a novel instead of a comic?
I’ve been writing comics for a few years now, and while it’s the most popular and successful medium for telling superhero stories – the superhero genre, as a whole, has always been a tremendously visual one, and this may be why superhero novels haven’t taken off in the past – I wanted to do things with this story that made the novel the ideal medium for it.
I did want to have big visual set-pieces and action sequences, of course, and I hope that the writing lets readers imagine them effectively, but a lot of this story is driven by big ideas about the world and the people in it, dialogue, characters thinking about what their powers mean, what they do to their everyday lives, and quite a few of the biggest moments in the book occur inside our protagonists’ head. Now while all this can be done very well in comics – Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman have shown that several times – for me, the novel is the best medium for this sort of story.
How did Titan Books end up publishing the book?
My agent, John Parker at the Zeno Agency, got the book to them, and I was lucky – they loved it and were excited by it.
Turbulence is my fifth book, and the response to my earlier books had been the same from UK publishers – editors loved the books, but marketing didn’t know what to do with a foreign author with no following in the UK, especially in a market as saturated and as full of talent and huge names as science fiction and fantasy. Superhero novels haven’t sold well before, this isn’t a book aimed at the Indian diaspora, and I don’t know of any Indian writers doing well in genre markets abroad. So the dice seemed quite loaded against finding a publisher, but my agent had warned me at the time of signing up that finding a publisher was going to be a slow process since I was, well, new and foreign.
Fortunately Titan Books was confident enough in the material to make that leap of faith, and I’m very grateful for that.
Do you have any details on the film adaptation?
To be honest, I have no idea what’s going on. Several producers and directors have loved the idea in Bollywood, but Bollywood is a crazy town. Indian superhero movies thus far have been uniformly terrible, and a large part of this is because they are completely dependent on the whims of the stars in them, whose concerns are primarily not story or character, but looking good to their fans, strutting about and flexing.
But in India, to build a film on the scale Turbulence will have to be on, you need a star attached, and most of the people who can get the film greenlit are booked up for the next couple of years. The screenplay’s lying with them, every other person the film needs to get moving is enthusiastic, but I suspect even if the film does end up getting made in Bollywood, it’ll be very, very different from the book. Bollywood hasn’t quite grasped the concept of good sci-fi/fantasy storytelling yet. I’m hoping to change that one day.
On the UK/US front, though, things are beginning to move. My agent tells me there’s interest, and there might be some interesting meetings when I come to London later this year. But the actual honest answer is I have no idea what’s going on.
What other projects are you currently working on?
The Turbulence sequel, Resistance. As of now, it’s set a few years after Turbulence, and I’m attempting to make it as standalone as possible, though of course several key characters from Turbulence will appear. In shorthand, if Turbulence is the Superman book, Resistance is the Batman book.
Apart from that, there’s a zombie comedy comic set in Delhi, called UnHoli, another comic called Local Monsters featuring a group of Indian monsters sharing a flat in Delhi, and a couple of film scripts, one of which I’m actually hoping to direct myself. That’s not sf/fantasy, though, that’s a low-budget comedy.
Anything else you want to plug?
Yes, my first three books, the GameWorld Trilogy, starting with The Simoqin Prophecies, are going to be out on Kindle worldwide in around a month. I wrote Simoqin when I was 22, a decade ago, and it’s so great for me that it’s finally going to be available outside India. So do watch out for that.
Thank you, Samit!