Author Samit Basu’s first American release, Turbulence, is the story of a few regular people who arrive in Delhi on a flight from London…with superpowers. Talk about baggage. Not just the standard flying, invisible, very very fast kinds of superpowers, either: each one of them gets what they most want in life. Basu doesn’t bother with the unlucky folks who wound up with new iPhones or a Prada wardrobe and instead rollicks through the adventures of the more incredible ones: an aspiring actress effortlessly bewitches everyone, a stressed working mom can split herself into multiple bodies, and the protagonist, Aman Sen, once under-noticed, now controls all the networks in the world. It’s not the most traditional distribution of skills in a superhero team, but this is India in the 21st century. Chaos and clamor are the (dis)order of the day—villainous destruction and heroic derring-do hardly make a splash. Aman and his new team mean well, but how can they actually go about saving the world in an always-on, hyperlinked, complicated modern society?
After rave reviews for Turbulence in its Indian and UK releases—from names like Mike Carey and Wired, no less–I ordered a copy from India. And despite me knowing approximately half a percent as much about Indian literature or speculative fiction as I do about Indian cinema, Samit agreed to let me interview him about it anyway.
Originally from Calcutta, India, Samit is also the author of a bestselling fantasy trilogy, Gameworld (The Simoqin Prophecies, The Manticore’s Secret, and The Unwaba Revelations); a YA adventure, Terror on the Titanic; comics, including a zombie invasion of Delhi; films; and many other things, which you can explore on his website.
Beth Watkins: I was telling a friend who works at a public library about Turbulence and she said “Wow, that’s not what people think of when they think of Indian literature! Cool!” Are you getting that general reaction a lot—and, if so, what’s it like to live with it?
Samit Basu: I’ve had this reaction consistently for every book and it’s one I love getting. That said, there’s a lot happening in Indian literature now, and if you consider work in other Indian languages (I’ve always counted English as one, as most of the people I know grew up speaking it) Indian lit is incredibly diverse. But most of that work never goes out to other countries. With translation and the Internet and other wonderful things, that will hopefully be fixed soon. Until then, I am most pleased being the weird one in life and work.
That said, I think the book is centered around themes that are fairly universal—the dangers of getting what you really want, and the challenges and complexities of being able to actually influence, even fundamentally change, the world. And I think you’ll see more books like this coming out of India in the next few years. But that’s more a question of publishers in other countries thinking they can sell them than anything else.
BW: How have current Indian goings-on influenced what you’re working on next?
SB: Well, Turbulence was definitely influenced by whatever was going on at the time. It was very clearly intended to be a novel of here and no—there and then, I suppose, but 2009 wasn’t that long ago. The next few years were interesting because five or six of the superhero scenarios in the book that involved news actually happened, without the superheroes of course. The sequel, which I just finished, is set eleven years later, but of course that’s in a world that’s had superpeople in it for eleven years, so it’s very different from the one that we live in now.
BW: The concept of modern urban India is probably pretty unfamiliar to most Americans. Anything with as many current cultural references as Turbulence is bound to be ethnographic in some way or another, so what do you think/hope we’ll learn as we read?
SB: I honestly don’t know. In writing scenes set in India, as anywhere else, the objective is never to impart any kind of lesson or cultural understanding, but just to be as honest and realistic as possible (apart from, you know, superpowers). I think what people take out of books depends more on the people than on the books, assuming the books aren’t agenda-driven, which Turbulence definitely isn’t. Also if there is a unifying idea about India, I don’t know what it is, and I think it would be both foolish and arrogant of me to try to find it, largely because every day I realize I know absolutely nothing about what drives people who live next door, let alone all over this insane country. And that any book I’ve read that has tried to Explain India has bored or annoyed me. Usually both. Steering clear of any form of Bringing India to the World has always been quite important to me; not because I think there’s no value in doing that, but because I know I’m not qualified to do it, and more learned people have tried and failed utterly. I hope American readers will get to see an India that actually exists, one of millions, but a real one.
BW: This is the first of your novels that’s about India in any named way. What made you want to take that on, especially given your reservations about Explaining India?
SB: It was a lot to take on. I’d actually wanted to write a book set largely in India for a while—after three fat books set in an imaginary world, you want to tackle reality if you can. More than India specifically, though, I wanted to write a book set mostly in places I’d actually been, and see how the process of adding fantastical people and events to real surroundings compared with pure worldbuilding. I’m happy to say that Augmented Reality is just as fun to do as the wholly imaginary, especially as there are so many tools nowadays that you can play around with as you build your book’s world.
Turbulence actually started out being a book that obeyed the laws of physics, but I found that the more I wrote about Indian settings, the color and noise and chaos overwhelmed the characters, and I really had to turn the volume up on what they could do before they could stand out.
BW: What does it mean to you—personally and as a professional in the world of storytelling across many media—that Turbulence has expanded from your home base to the UK and now the US? Is there some satisfaction in getting to be part of the foreign pop culture that you grew up with?
SB: It means everything. This relates quite strongly to one of your earlier questions, about this book not being what one expects from Indian literature. My books have always done well in India, but that feeling of not quite fitting in has always been there—they’re as unexpected in India as they are outside it. But it’s not like I’m doing something revolutionary at all, with my work, the books are all completely classifiable—it’s just that there aren’t that many people in India who appreciate the fantasy, or SF, or comics that I like. So when the reviews in the UK came out—and they were the best reviews I’d ever had, and written by people who were supremely well-informed about things like genre fiction and comics and pop culture—and I did the book tour and met a lot of writers there, some of whom I’m a big fan of—there was this sense of fitting in, of being a part of something, that I’d never had in India, where I’d always been the odd one out. There’s no one I’ll identify with more than the Indian readers who’ve read most of my books, though, but they’re people who read books from all over the world, and probably watch the same things I do as well.
With the US, it’s a whole other level, of course. Especially because Turbulence is a book with superheroes in it, and superheroes are really an American thing. And this book doesn’t go to America at all, though its sequel does. So I’m really interested to see what American critics and readers will make of it.
BW: What are some of the influences on Turbulence, whether books, comics, films, tv…?
SB: Too many to list, actually. I get influenced by everything, and one of the major aspects of my first book, The Simoqin Prophecies, was actually displaying these influences and showing how stories blended into each other, and could be twisted and mixed and transmogrified into something hopefully new. With Turbulence, though, I tried to work from first principles—there is no pre-reading required reading superhero list. You don’t have to be aware of superhero culture at all, but there are a few Easter eggs for people who are. I can’t help it, that’s the way minds worked in this hyperlinked world of ours. The characters are broadly aware of pop culture that everyone in the world is aware of, but it was about trying to get to the roots of what creates genre stories, but it was fun creating this story without nods and winks, in the present-day world, in as honest a manner as possible. To build a superhero universe without the trappings of the superhero genre, the costumes, the masked adventurer names and sidekicks. What would happen if you suddenly got abilities related to what you wanted most in life, and suddenly found you could change everything?
BW: What superheroes did you grow up with in India? Or what superheroic figures, even if they don’t quite match the popular concept of a superhero? I keep thinking about Indian film heroes, who often come across as exaggerated anyway even when they’re just supposed to be regular guys—and some of whom do wear capes and spandex as part of their day’s work in an average film….
SB: I didn’t grow up with any superheroes, unless you count Spiderman cartoons, and the Batman TV show, which I devoured as a child without any understanding of its intentional campiness. 80s cartoons are mostly superhero-esque, I guess, and I lived on those. In Calcutta, you could hook a booster on to your TV antenna and catch the broadcast from Bangladesh, where they would show American serials and cartoons.
My superhero-love happened much later, as an adult, when I went to the UK to do a Masters and discovered comics. There weren’t too many good comics around in India when I was growing up, and even the great ones that were around—Tintin and Asterix—I was discouraged from reading because my parents thought comics were rubbish. But suddenly there I was, reading the world’s greatest comics writers doing incredibly deep and clever things with these spandexed creatures, and I realized I had a lot to catch up on.
BW: The world of Turbulence is contemporary and international. What appealed to you about a “not only here but also very now” setting?
SB: The challenge of writing it, primarily. It was new and unfamiliar territory to me as a writer, and I like boldly going where, well, many have gone before, but boldly going anyway. I think in this Facebook-Twitter age, one thing that’s fundamentally changed about the whole writing/reading experience is that everything is live. Everything is performance, and lives for a very short time, and a million things demand your attention at any point of time. Very stressful, but also very interesting. Our brains are being rewired constantly. Also, everything is international; words you put out sitting at home can be read by people in countries you no longer remember the capitals of a second after you put them out on the Internet. We’re reading the same stories, seeing the same videos, live, always.
So while in, say, classic fantasy, you’re aiming for some sort of timeless feel, which I’d been doing for years, for a book like Turbulence it’s like taking a few photographs of the world, and adding Instagram-like filters to them. But there’s also the huge writer aim of trying to capture your times and your surroundings and hoping your experiences would travel and be recognizable to people who have nothing in common with you except pop culture and the news. And hopefully have some value and stand the test of time as well. Exciting and challenging.
So while writing Turbulence, I kept the phone on, and the Internet on, and just wrote it, in the middle of Delhi, while trying to cope with everyday life as well. For the fantasy trilogy before, I’d gone to Calcutta and shut myself up in the family home, with trees and birds and things outside, and tried to find peaceful writing conditions. I think that’s created a fundamentally different feel.
BW: Your characters seem to have expectations of their powered selves that derive…what, from being savvy 21st-century people who have seen some superhero films or read some comics? Does that make it harder for them to adjust to being powered? Are they post-modern?
SB: They’re just people. Many of the main characters have no superhero knowledge whatsoever. Some others are very aware, and these are the ones with the expectations you speak of. Just Aman, really. It really depends on who they are/were in their lives and what they read and saw. So the characters with superhero awareness, like Aman, start placing their new powers in superhero contexts immediately, and using their superhero awareness as a helpful reference point, but the rest approach it very differently—it’s more a question of who they are and what these new abilities do, directly, to their lives. Superhero culture isn’t a big thing in India at all, and I thought it was realistic to assume that most of the people on the plane that started all this madness would have no idea how to place themselves in any kind of post-modern reference frame. Besides, that’s not really the sort of thing you’d think about at all if you suddenly got amazing new physical abilities—unless you were an academic/analyst in your previous life anyway, I suppose, in which case your powers would probably relate to deeper/broader understanding anyway. But the characters in the book have no time or space to be post-modern and analytical, because no one knows what the hell has happened and why and they have to make huge decisions and have absolutely no time.
You’re undergone this massive evolution, and you’ve crawled out of the water into the mud, and you really don’t have the bandwidth to figure out what happened. Especially when there are other supers hunting you and people are disappearing and you have immediate crises to deal with, and incredible new talents to explore. So no, they’re not post-modern. They’re confused, scared people trying to figure things out as they go along, and doing the best they can under very stressful circumstances.
BW: The idea of having a new talent to explore is really attractive even for us regular people. What about those kinds of dilemmas interests you?
SB: The immediacy and scale. Nowadays we all know how to fix the world on Twitter, but actually trying to do it would be an incredibly complex process, as Aman discovers. As individuals in a troubled and complex world, we all have strong opinions on how things should be. But what would we do if we had the ability to actually realize our dreams? Superhero stories are usually wish-fulfilment fantasies, and I wanted to examine these in the context of the 21st-century world. I’m always frustrated when I read superhero stories when people with incredibly powers use them to perform tasks that are really trivial compared with what they could actually do. There was also the question of what the large-scale, popular, common fantasies of people today would be, and an element of investigating how relevant your more traditional superhero powers would actually be in today’s world.
SB: I actually sternly resisted the urge to delve into superhero tropes, as I didn’t want this to be a book only for the powers-aware meta-fiction link-loving reader. But there’s no point doing a book with people with superpowers if you can’t have a bit of fun as well. Most classic superhero tropes evolved between the 30s and the 70s, and most are still around largely thanks to inertia, though far better writers than I have pulled them apart and put them back together before. The challenge in doing this lies in trying to create a second layer over the core story, where readers more involved with that culture can find a fresh take on familiar material, but it doesn’t end up becoming some sort of inner-circle closed-to-outsiders story. Luckily, most of the people who read the book while I was writing it have no awareness of or interest in superheroes at all, so I was able to check while I was telling this story that it was indeed accessible.
BW: Now that you’ve spent a few years with the world of Turbulence, do any of its powers seem especially more like a curse than a gift, maybe in the “be careful what you wish for” sort of way? Maybe any of them, depending on what expectations their holder was saddled with? I keep thinking of Aman really seeming to know way too much at certain times and almost paralyzed by wondering how to go from “can” to “does.”
SB: All of them. You know the old “With great power…” superhero line. The only power in the book that I’d absolutely love to have would be Tia’s—the ability to become any number of people, live different lives, explore everything, never have to make a choice. A lot of the other powers could be very convenient, but terrifying to actually contemplate. And they’d make your everyday life a nightmare.
BW: On the chance that Turbulence gets made into a movie in India, do you want to say anything about the superhero tradition in Indian cinema, which readers might have gotten a taste of in an io9 piece written by friend-of-The-Gutter Todd Stadtman last year?
SB: I would prefer to pretend the superhero tradition in Indian cinema doesn’t exist. Otherwise this would turn into a rant, and no one wants that.
BW: That’s fair, though I will defend the admittedly weird Indian-Soviet co-production Ajooba until my dying breath. There’s another Indian film mainstay that you and I share a love of: a good villain lair. You wrote a few into Turbulence. How fun was that?
SB: Nothing like a good villain lair. I’ve had one in pretty much every book I’ve written, and I think the world would be richer if everyone had one. Again, I tried to restrain myself while writing Turbulence because broad stretches of pure geekery about buildings and living spaces might not be as much fun for the reader as they are for the writer. But one day I hope to have a villain lair all of my very own. The challenge in Delhi would be maintenance. But when I was a journalist I went to the houses of several people who owned villain lairs and didn’t even know. That is the saddest thing in the world.
Beth Watkins writes extensively about Indian cinema at her blog Beth Loves Bollywood and has contributed to publications like The Wall Street Journal; India Real Time Blog, FirstPost, and The Hindustan Times.