Turbulence by Samit Basu. Book Review & Competition

TURBULENCE by Samit Basu

Titan Books, p/b, 7th July, £7.99.

Reviewed by Rhian Bowley

Smart, skilfully written and superpowered. What more could you want? How about a Q&A with the author? Done. Consider it the superpower of reviews – an insight into the mind of the author, as well as a rundown of the book’s highlights. Don’t say we don’t spoil you. . .

How would you feel if you actually got what you wanted? And what would you do if you could really change the world?

The passengers of flight BA142 arrived in Delhi with more than the usual extras from plane travel (someone else’s flu germs, popped ears and, if you’re lucky, a stolen flight blanket). These guys disembarked with superpowers, and a choice – how to use their new ability, and which side to choose. Superpowers do not a superhero make; one has to take action and make allies, too. If all you wanted was to make it big in Bollywood, decisions like that can seem like a drag…

Turbulence asks all the right questions, not just the glamorous ones, and suggests a few answers too. What would be the most useful powers in today’s hyper-connected, image-conscious world? How far would brute strength get you, and how much good would redistribution of wealth really do? Was what happened on that aeroplane a secret military op, or have the passengers taken the next step in human evolution?

I loved this modern take on the classic superhero story (bearing in mind that old dude, Superman, has been knocking around since 1932) and admired the cleverness wound in around the Manga-style battle attacks and ubiquitous flying men. The character arcs are satisfyingly wriggly, careful not to jump to obvious conclusions but instead taking a thoughtful, realistic look at what people would actually do if given the ability they most desired. You might think you’d save the world and put Oxfam in charge of everything, but I’ll bet that a) you’d update Facebook first and b) things would be a little more complex than that.

Basu’s writing is sharp and well paced, and very funny in an arch, pop-culture saturated way. There’s a superpowered showdown in Hamleys, a nasty reptilian dude who would fit right in as a baddie from He-Man, and the main character can hook up to anything on a network, be that computers, phones or satellites. The superpowers Basu has created are inventive and fun, and there’s room left for a sequel to take the powered tribe even further.

As Samit answers below, Turbulence is very deliberately of its time, and it works very well as a slice of early 21st century life. Any story looking at superheroes will reflect back what we as a society revere and amplify, the signals sent out about the qualities we seek in our idealised selves. Turbulence highlights that our most valuable currencies right now are information and spin, while also featuring some bad-ass fight scenes and very funny characters. Recommended for anyone who’s ever imagined life as a superhero, which covers most of us, I suspect.

Read on for Samit’s answers to our questions, which give an expanded insight into Turbulence’s world.

Rhian: Turbulence is very ‘now’ – very much a world of Twitter, iPhones, Capoeira, high speed internet & even faster turnover of celebrities. Was the idea behind the novel a recent one, or something you’d wanted to write about for a while?

Samit: I wrote Turbulence in the summer of 2009, which is when it’s set. The whole idea behind it was to write a novel as situated in the present as possible, to say as much about the world right then as it could. The truth is I didn’t know that it was going to be a superhero novel until I realised that to write a story that aimed to move very quickly and capture, very fleetingly, the essence of a different world every few chapters, the characters would have to be amplified so as not to be overwhelmed by the chaos of the world around them.

Then it became clear that no type of character captured the 21st century zeitgeist as effectively as the superhero. And once I’d decided it was going to be a superhero story, I knew I should write it as quickly as possible, because capturing the mood of that precise time became more important than aiming for a sort of timeless feel, as writers would have to do when writing more standard SF or fantasy. Hence the focus on present day anxieties, present day obsessions and aspirations, as seen in both the world and the powers the heroes acquired. To help with this, I wrote fast, with the Internet and the phone on throughout, unlike with earlier books where I’d shut myself off.

Which is why it was very interesting for me when over the next two years a lot of the events I’d seen happening in the book actually happened in the real world, most noticeably the revealed presence of a very famous terrorist in Pakistan very close to where he was actually found, and when a large number of people in London suddenly got very angry…

Rhian: Which superpower would you least like to have, and why?

Samit: Invisibility. It would make research a lot easier, but the fear of disappearing entirely is a real one for any writer. The immense sense of grief I feel when I’m expecting to see my book in a store and it’s not there… I don’t want to feel that when I look in a mirror. No amount of quality time spent lurking in Scarlett Johannson’s bathroom could compensate for that.

Rhian: I’ll bet there’s a power you invented and wanted to include, but had to edit out – what would we find in a ‘Director’s Cut – Deleted Scenes’ version of the book?

Samit: Lots of them. The director’s cut you speak of actually exists – I added it to the Indian hardback and might put it online soon, it’s a bunch of things, a few short stories involving people on the plane but not in the book, a few stories about people in the book, details I left out because I wanted the central book to move forward as fast as it could, and cut out everything that wasn’t in the core plot. My natural state is one of digression, which is why my first three books were each over 500 pages long. But I didn’t want Turbulence to meander; I wanted it to go vroom.

Rhian: My favourite character is Uzma, the gang’s ‘Super-Like-Me Girl’. Was she based on your experience of real-life people like her?

Samit: Good, I love Uzma and she hasn’t been getting as much love as I’d like her to. She’s not really based on anyone I know, largely because the real-world Bollywood aspirants I know aren’t as bright and sharp as she is. But I do know some people who have that strange magnetic quality, that mysterious factor that lets them own every room they enter, and I thought that might be as relevant a superhero power as any, and something people would appreciate in this networking age.

The thing to remember about Uzma is that she’s not stupid at all  – the pursuit of fame and celebrity status has become legitimate in today’s age. Didn’t some recent British study find that most kids want to be famous when they grow up? It’s certainly true in urbanIndiaas well, possibly all over the world. Uzma is very self-centred, yes, and doesn’t see why any power she’s acquired should cause her to alter her life plans and turn her into some kind of social worker. But isn’t that exactly what we’d think in her situation and with her goals? I know I would.

Rhian: How has your work in comics influenced your prose writing, and were you ever tempted to write Turbulence as a comic or graphic novel?

Samit: Writing books and comics are two entirely different experiences, and each helps the other. Writing comics has certainly helped me to structure visual sequences, look at dialogue more clearly and perhaps most importantly to be ruthless in terms of plot flow, cutting out everything that doesn’t belong. Prose gives you so much more freedom; you only really understand this when you start working in other media. Comics writing probably involves more constraints than any other form of longform fiction, and can give any writer a lot of discipline and new appreciation for many aspects of prose writing that he or she had taken for granted.

Writing comics also involved reading a lot of comics, and that was supremely helpful as well. One aspect of this was that I realized pretty early that superhero stories aren’t about powers and props at all, but about the people who wield them and the world they live in. Also, I came to the conclusion that thousands of writers over almost eight decades of feverishly paced work must have come up with any power I could possibly think of, any name, any idea, and the only reason I might think any superpower I’d created was new was simply that I hadn’t read enough. Once this pressure was gone, it was easy to just make stuff up and enjoy myself thoroughly.

I wasn’t tempted to do it as a graphic novel at any stage. This story was always a book. I can imagine adaptations into any number of other media, of course, but they would be fundamentally different, as they should.

Rhian: What’s your next project? 

Samit: I’m doing a bunch of things now. There’s a sort-of-sequel, a stand-alone novel in the Turbulence world, where everything has changed a few years down the line. It’s tentatively called Resistance. Besides this, a couple of comics series, and possibly two films, one of which I’ll be directing if things work out. Each one is a different kind of story, the process involved in each requires a different kind of insanity, and I’m enjoying myself hugely.

To win a copy of Turbulence, please tweet a link to this review along with a description of the most original super hero you can conceive to @Titanbooks #Turbulence. One copy of the title is available per website and Samit’s favourite hero will win!