Samit Basu is a writer of books, films and comics. His first novel, The Simoqin Prophecies, published by Penguin India in 2003 when Samit was 23, was the first book in the bestselling Gameworld Trilogy and marked the beginning of Indian English fantasy writing. The other books in the trilogy are The Manticore’s Secret and The Unwaba Revelations. Samit’s other novels include the young adult novel Terror on the Titanic, and a superhero novel titled Turbulence. Turbulence was published in the U.K. to rave reviews in 2012 and is to be published in the U.S. in 2013. It won Wired‘s Goldenbot Award as one of the best books of 2012.
Basu’s work in comics ranges from historical romance to zombie comedy, and includes diverse collaborators, from X-Men/Felix Castor writer Mike Carey to Terry Gilliam and Duran Duran. His next graphic novel, Local Monsters, will be published in 2013.
Nick Sharps: Sell me Turbulence in as few words as possible.
Samit Basu: Please buy Turbulence.
Right, I’ll try again with a few more words, but that’s the lowest word-count I can achieve while remaining polite. Turbulence is a superhero novel, set mostly in India and the UK. Fresh take on the genre, from a non-Western perspective. Passengers on a flight from London to Delhi find they’ve mysteriously gained physical abilities related to their deepest desires. What would you do if you actually got what you wanted? And how would you feel if you suddenly had the power to change the world?
NS: Why did you write Turbulence and what were your greatest influences?
SB: I wanted to write a novel set firmly in the present, and in places where I’d actually been. A book about a group of people who suddenly found anything they did had tremendous consequences, whose every action would have a huge impact on the world around them. Because it’s the world we live in now, it became a superhero book. I’d previously written a fantasy trilogy set in an imaginary world, and I wanted to write an augmented-reality book next, take a form of storytelling down to first principles and build a world on top of ours.
The biggest influences on Turbulence are superhero comics and writers I’ve read and loved: Warren Ellis, Alan Moore, Gail Simone, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, Joss Whedon, Brian Michael Bendis. Comics like The Authority, Powers, Watchmen, Nextwave apart from large Marvel/DC franchises. To an extent, TV shows like (the first season of) Heroes – I saw Alphas and Misfits after I’d written the book, and think they followed a lot of the same principles Turbulence does, in the abandoning of costumes and names and so on, a more 21st-century approach. That said, I wanted the book to appeal to people who aren’t necessarily steeped in superhero lore, so I tried to restrict the bringing in of these references to the few characters in the book who are comics/SF/fantasy fans, and would naturally relate their new powers to the heroes they’ve grown up reading and loving. For the rest of the characters (which made sense, because these comics and shows aren’t very big in India at all) it was a matter of discovering their powers and learning how to use them or not without the burden of eight decades of context.
NS: Was it difficult to figure out how a person’s deepest desires might translate into super powers?
SB: It was interesting because it led to a lot of thought on what people really wanted today, assuming the biggest stories and trends in the media were an indication. This isn’t really an age of big ideas – if the Turbulence event had happened in the late 60s or early 70s in America, for instance, you’d have a lot of spacemen and aliens. But for it to happen now, to a group of people on a British Airways flight – you had to have a lot of them developing powers that related to the things most important in their life, such as a perfectly toned butt, or a reality show, or a billion Twitter followers. Of course the old classic things people have always wanted – power, love, sex, money, in one form or another – showed up a lot. And the people who got really interesting, more original powers were people whose minds were not really aligned with mainstream thought at all, like Anima the anime warrior-princess and Sundar, who invents things in his sleep.
SB: I’ve been writing novels for a decade now, though Turbulence is the first one to travel across the world to the US. It’s a very challenging process of course, and always will be, but I’m relatively comfortable with it. Learning comics writing was the tough one for me – it’s a completely different process, your thoughts have to jump instead of flow, and you have to think visually and spatially in a way you really don’t have to when working on a novel. It’s a whole other skill, and also a surrender of control – you really have to trust the artist, and prepare to be amazed at how art and text combine to give you something that’s greater than either. But I’d recommend comics writing as an exercise for anyone who wants to work on their pacing, structuring, and economy – you really learn to strip a story down to its bare essentials.
I chose the novel form for several reasons. First, I can’t draw, and I wanted to take complete responsibility for this story. Second, there are already so many fantastic superhero comics, and I didn’t want my work to just be ‘Here’s another superhero comic, but this one’s set in India.’ The superhero comic is a highly developed art form with its own standards and own criteria for success – I wanted to try something different. Third, while I wanted several parts of the book to be as visual as a comic – the fight scenes, the locations, the movement – there were also several ideas I wanted to sink my teeth into for which the comic isn’t necessarily the best form – what happens when Aman actually tries to fix the world using communications networks, for instance, or several long conversations and thinking-things-through bits that wouldn’t have made very exciting comics pages. There are comics writers who have the skill to present any idea, no matter how long or complex, as a visually fascinating page sequence, and get to work with the few artists who can do this as well, but I don’t think I am one of them – I’m simply far more comfortable writing it down. Fourth, yes, it is a superhero novel, but only in the sense that the characters have physics-defying physical abilities; writing about superheroes wasn’t what drew me to this story, though that did make writing it more fun. But it’s not as embedded in superhero culture as, say, Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible, which I loved. It’s a story that lies adjacent to superhero culture, which made it more of a novel idea.
NS: Is there any chance of experiencing Turbulence as a comic?
SB: I’d love to see it, but I don’t know of any specific plans yet.
NS: Tia was easily my favorite character, thanks in no small part to her power. How do you balance all of these superpowers so that there’s a natural imperative to form a team?
SB: Tia’s my favourite character too, and if I could have a power, I’d like hers. I didn’t really have to power-balance so much because there weren’t any real Team vs Team superfights, except for one massive collision in Goa where I could make up characters largely to serve that fight. In this case, the imperative to form a team, for the protagonists, wasn’t power-balancing at all because they didn’t live in a superhero world where you had to form a balanced team. They’re just a bunch of people drawn together by a collective urge to survive, and they don’t have a roadmap or a mystical guide, so they just try to do their best and muddle through as painlessly as they can.
NS: I’m fond of the idea of a hero team that consists of B-list super-humans. Why the decision to go with “very functional, very sidekick-y, very mass media” powers?
SB: The primary reason is that all these powers are very useful 21-st century powers and expressions of 21-st century desires. But if you place them in comic-book history, they’re not powers that your alpha characters have. And some of them aren’t visually spectacular, which is why they never made it to comics stardom (another reason why this is a novel). If you look around the book, you’ll find several characters – Vir, Jai – who have very standard comics A-list powers, but I wanted to demonstrate that super-strength, or speed, or any of those comics A-list powers aren’t very useful in todays world, at least not if you want to make the world better, or at least fundamentally change it. What they’re good for is winning super-fights. But Aman’s stated aim is to try and use these new powers to actually help the people who need help most, and fix the many things in the world that need fixing, instead of having things degenerate into yet another super-brawl. Whether he succeeds in this or not is in the book, of course.
NS: It strikes me unlikely that Turbulence will ever get a faithful movie adaption here in the West. Do you think there’s any director that would better translate the material from page to screen?
SB: I’d love to see a movie version. And I know the story would have to change significantly – a faithful version would be far too long. Of course, after watching Game of Thrones what every SF/fantasy writer now wants, I suspect, is a TV series. But filmwise, there are several directors who could handle the material very easily, and I’d love to see that happen. I’d enjoy seeing a Bollywood version of this, but there really isn’t a director who could get it done there. No one better for this material than Joss Whedon, of course, but that’s about as likely to happen to me as getting an actual superpower.
NS: What can you tell us about Resistance, the sequel to Turbulence?
SB: It’s set in 2020, in a world dominated by superheroes, and is set all over the world, with a lot of scenes happening in imaginary future versions of New York and Tokyo. A lot of it is about the human response to the new world order. Most of the main characters who survive Turbulence are in it, but a few of the major characters are new, and human. Let’s say if Turbulence is the Superman book, Resistance is the Batman book.
NS: What is your favorite super hero and why?
SB: Elastigirl from the Incredibles film. It’s just the way she manages being a powerful super, an action hero and adventurer and world-saver and all of that, and also manages to run a family, raise her kids and keep a brave smile on her face through it all. What a fantastic expression of the flexibility needed to be a working mother.
SB: Hopefully Tia’s – to be able to split into multiple bodies, live several lives, be everywhere, see and do everything and never make a choice again. Though writing is supposed to be an ultimately futile quest for immortality, right? Maybe something on those lines, then. People in the book don’t get the powers they’d like, they get the power they really want – and who knows what I really want.
NS: What would you say that Turbulence manages to accomplish that other super hero books/comics/movies do not?
SB: It’s tough for me to answer this without reviewing my work and/or sounding like an idiot, and I don’t want to say ‘It’s different!’ so this is a very difficult question to answer. I think if I just repeat what I said in the very first response, when you’d asked me to sell Turbulence to you, that’s all I can claim. Also, I have read/seen some really wonderful superhero comics/books/TV shows/films, and I’d really rather not be the one to claim I’m better than them all.
NS: If Turbulence were an ice cream flavor, which would it be?
SB: Chili dark chocolate. This actually exists. Resistance, though you haven’t asked, is wasabi.
NS: Any final words for potential readers?
SB: Yes. I’m thrilled that the book is out in the US, which is really Superhero Central, and I’m really curious to see how it does. In India it was mostly an eccentric novel set largely in India, where very few people are actually interested in SF or fantasy or superheroes, but when it went to the UK there was this sudden sense of finding readers and fellow writers with a greater understanding of what the book was trying to do and where it came from, apart from the details of where it was set. I’m really hoping that experience translates to America as well.