Mara is very different now, after digitising and uploading herself as a “space-time tubeform” into the network of the Roulette. There’s even a word for people like her in the universe of Jayinee Basu’s 2019 scifi novella The City of Folding Faces—they’re called Ruga, a hyperperson who has absorbed so much information in the Roulette that only another Ruga can truly understand them.
There are so many more things to say and so many different ways of communicating them, the Ruga even opt for face-augmentation surgery to have more facial expressions, rippling and crystallising at each other in communion. But like the networks of our reality, there’s a burgeoning business within and around the Roulette technology, and the Ruga’s data, their very identities, are being used in pretty dark ways.
The story is about love and technology, and, most urgently, about human connections—their fragilities, their synthetic amplifications, their near-psychedelic peaks, and their cold, brutal absences. It’s a trip and a terrifying pleasure to read. We spoke with Jayinee Basu about her book, the drive behind it—“the unbearable aspect of being a single person throughout your whole life”—and how its fictional technology threads and predicts the networks that will always find ways to dominate our lives. Read an early excerpt from the book below, and find our interview immediately after.
Jayinee Basu is a writer and third-year medical student based in Oakland, in the US state of California. She is the author of The City of Folding Faces (2019 Lanternfish Press), a book of poems entitled Asuras (2014 Civil Coping Mechanisms), as well as the English translator of Sukumar Ray’s children’s story HaJaBaRaLa (1921).
Mara heard the explosion from the other room. She grabbed her beer and ran into the kitchen, ready to splash it onto whatever was on fire. There was no fire, but the window into the microwave was now yellow. The egg had exploded. Mara scraped the egg off the microwave window onto her plate and ate it. She then re-scraped the microwave, mixed the last remnants of the egg with a little water, and ate that doused with hot sauce. She opened another beer and drank the whole thing, along with one of her pain pills.
Mara locked her doors and headed to the Casino. It was the day after Christmas, and no one buys expensive baby clothes the day after Christmas, her boss had texted her. Take the day off.
Inside the Casino, Roulette was already in motion. The massive grid of screens was tuned to various channels of grey snow effervescing with intermittent rainbows. Sometimes shapes flickered in and out. A child was screaming Mommy! at a particular screen. Mara felt flushed and for a moment her body forgot whether it needed to inhale or exhale. The red plastic walls of the Casino glistened. The spiky fronds of greenery lining the room seemed to stiffen into spears. She steeled herself for a rush of memory.
Nothing rushed. Remembrances did not trickle or drip into the staging area of her consciousness. There was no fog or haze or condensation to speak of except the visible clumps of smoke emitted by patrons in ill-fitting T-shirts who spent their days mechanically pressing levers for coins. Though the smoke and flashing lights of the Casino made her feel light-headed, Mara found herself returning to it several times a week just to walk around, look at the people, and sometimes touch the plastic walls with her fingertips. She felt stuck in a precarious time, the parolee of an internal prison readjusting to freedom.
The child screamed Mommy! again and smacked a little hand on the distorted image of a woman as it flashed quickly by, her face pulled toward the corner of the screen. How many transformations had occurred already?
“Ma’am, please secure your child from the screen,” a bored voice said over the loudspeaker. Mara looked around for the child’s mother. The child howled and slapped the screen once more.
“Ma’am, please secure your child or we will have to ask you to leave the Casino,” the voice repeated. Mara realised that it was talking to her. She spun slowly, peering into corners of the room for a camera, pointing at the child and making big X gestures with her arms. NOT MINE, she mouthed. An old woman was hurrying toward her.
“Look—” Mara began, but the woman brushed past her and picked up the child. The little girl shrieked and received a slap across the face.
“Her momma’s been stuck in there for two weeks,” the woman said impassively as she carried the now-silent child away toward the food court. Mara wondered what kind of mother the child would have once she returned. If she returned.
“Her momma’s been stuck in there for two weeks.”
A crust punk who was mostly earlobes stood in line for the Roulette box, which resembled a mall photo booth. When the door slid open, Mara could see the globe-shaped structure inside illuminated by the pacific glow of the betting screen. On this screen, players placed bets corresponding to the granularity of the topological transformation they wished to undergo. The higher the bet, the smaller the unit of self the transformation applied to, the longer the time spent digitised, and the higher the cash payout afterwards. Ultimately there was no way to accurately guess how each bet would interact with an individual’s space-time tubeform. Some players had been in the system since its creation.
The door to the Roulette box slid open. The punk with the earlobes stomped toward it, glancing around for an audience like a child does before deciding to initiate a shriek. Mara glimpsed the spherical grid of specialised cameras that would digitise the player’s three-dimensional form and upload it into the Casino’s system, leaving the Roulette box empty for the next player. The scanned form underwent a series of transformations that sheared the now-incorporeal body into hundreds and thousands of iterations of noise and static, each occupying an adjacent coordinate in toroidal space-time. Eventually—there was no guarantee how long it might take—the bits returned to their original locations. The body was then restored and downloaded back into the reception box.
The neutral glow of the betting screen intensified as Earlobes entered the box. The door closed and locked with a sibilant compression, aquamarine light spilling from the hair-thin spaces around its edges. A female speech emulator’s voice could be faintly heard through the walls of the box.
An individual’s experience of life through time is a four-dimensional representation of a higher-order shape. The same way that an architect’s representation of a building from the side obscures the details of the far side of the building, so does the experience of life and the process of identity-formation obscure the full shape of who we could be. What lies on the other side of our thoughts, emotions, and decisions? When viewed from a “top-down” angle, the full plan can be seen at once. For the first time in history, the Casino is proud to offer the opportunity to experience the vastness that is you.
As if on cue, cornflower-coloured pain sparkled down Mara’s limbs through the fuses of her nerves, causing her to make a sound with her tongue and touch her temple in a pointless motion. Plucking a pill from her bag, she headed toward the exit and steeled herself against the excruciating number of minutes it would take for her stomach acids to release the analgesic compounds. Mara activated protective thoughts.
She reached first for her favourite memory: the first time that she saw Arlo and felt confronted by his incandescence. He was quiet, but something from the inside of him surged outward. She would later conceptualise it as rage. His eyelids lifted just enough to take in what was right in front of him, and she found this motion to be lovely, even erotic, coupled with the black pinpoints contracting and expanding in fields of hazel.
Mara walked quickly out of the Casino, reaching further into the banks of her memory. Arlo’s face turned into that of her high school boyfriend, who’d been pale and thin and had a face rosy with acne that gave his form a kind of blushing quietness. His acne had never bothered Mara; she’d never even seen it as something separate from the texture of his skin—pleasingly rough like homemade paper. He used to smile in bright flashes that were followed by a sudden vulnerability. He would close his lips tightly then, seemingly determined not to let that kind of thing slip again.
For the first time in history, the Casino is proud to offer the opportunity to experience the vastness that is you.
And then there was a boy in Mara’s middle school whose face rippled in a strange way, his blond hair and tan skin all the same shade and blending into each other like sand dunes, studded with eyes like sea glass. Having emigrated from Mexico, he spoke halting English in the dented, smoky voice of adolescence. On the first day of high school, she saw him, taurus-like and enormous. He had injected steroids so that he could be a linebacker. Though of course it was still technically visible, his face had somehow disappeared.
Mara tried to hold onto the memory of these faces as her painkillers kicked in and her brisk pace slowed to a trudge. A dissociative side effect seemed to scramble her understanding of where her limbs were in space. Her knees and elbows felt indistinguishable. The interior of her body felt much larger than it appeared from the outside. She could see her building take shape up ahead, but it seemed to be getting farther away instead of closer. Finally, a cold doorknob materialised under her hand. She shuffled through a series of keys and doors as exhaustion overtook her entirely. During these times, she preferred to retreat under a blanket and shut out all visual stimuli as she applied sadness to her body like a cold cream, chilling and unctuous, a mysterious but necessary cleansing ritual before her consciousness converted pixel by pixel into sleep.
Was there a catalyst event or inspiration for your novel?
Jayinee Basu: The novella was a challenge to myself to write a piece of long fiction, which is a form I’ve always struggled with. Even so, I wrote it the way I’d write a poem, which is to follow three or four unrelated ideas that converge and braid together in ways that always take me by surprise.
“One thing I was trying to get at in this book is the unbearable aspect of being a single person throughout your whole life.”
Some inspirations for the story were Arnold’s cat map, the challenges of developing a shared language in a romantic relationship, Silvan Tomkin’s affect theory, and Elaine Scarry’s essay On Beauty.
What is your greatest fear or hope that you wished to describe with your book?
Basu: One thing I was trying to get at in this book is the unbearable aspect of being a single person throughout your whole life. It seems reasonable that we developed this idea of having a stable identity so that we can learn from our mistakes and take responsibility for actions both good and bad, but the brain only has so much information storage and processing capacity. We rely on external storage now to do a lot of that legwork for us (i.e. social media/other types of documentation), but being able to store more information simultaneously creates more identities to maintain and process. It feels like at some point the demands of learning new things that don’t necessarily fit together in a tidy way—both socially and technologically—are going to overwhelm us as a culture.
Do you think the technology present in your novel will one day truly exist? Any versions of it?
Basu: A lot of the technology I describe already exists in some form. The mirror box is a brilliant treatment for phantom limb pain developed by Dr. V.S. Ramachandran that has evolved into research on augmented reality treatments for things like somatic symptom disorder and functional neurological disorders. These treatments attempt to mitigate dissociated body states instead of induce them, but research in ketamine therapy for example has shown that an increased degree of dissociation is associated with a decrease in depressive symptoms. We don’t know why that is, but once we find out, it seems inevitable that the findings will be used to manipulate purchasing behaviour somehow. There are also rudimentary versions of “dream recorders” and “thought recorders” which attempt to externalise what was before purely internal phenomena.
Is technology and the prosthetic knowledge, modes of communication, etc. that it currently provides inhibitory or supplementary to communities?
Basu: I guess I have trouble imagining any kind of culture without technology. Technologies like language, social engineering/politics, and obviously the material sciences enable us to have the kind of rich, dynamic experiences we associate with being human. If we couldn’t share our basic experience of the world with others, what would it mean to be human? I think all technologies at their core are at the service of communication and meaning-making between individuals and groups of people, and the negative aspects of technology are based more in the inherent difficulties of trying to maintain both an individual, subjective experience of the world as well as be a part of something bigger.
Has the structure of the current internet inspired any elements of your book?
Basu: Absolutely. The difficulty in explaining the sequence of jokes leading up to a late-stage meme to someone who’s not extremely on the internet is kind of analogous to the difficulty of communication between the Ruga and non-Ruga people. For someone who’s been following the evolution of an image within its hyper-dynamic social context, the meaning of a meme is instantaneous as well as exclusive to a specific social group, and that’s largely what makes it funny, that you’re able to share an incredibly circuitous inside joke with a complete stranger based on how much time you both waste in the same way. And I guess the question is that if you can then communicate incredibly specific things to a small group of people, does it follow that you also lose the ability or desire to communicate much more general things to a larger group of people?
Also the concept of seeing yourself from a detached third person view is part of the social media experience I think. People talk about “curated” social media accounts like they’re fake and bad, but that idea is so weird to me because it’s not like everyone expresses every single thought that runs through their head IRL. All of our voluntary actions are “curated” toward a particular purpose (whether we are aware of it or not), and the collection of all those decisions generally forms our understanding of who a person “is”.
Where do you think the internet is headed in the next five years? Next 50?
Basu: I feel like the structure of the internet will not change much but in the next 50 years I hope we will take the ethological consequences of the internet more seriously, and collect better data on the way that this global “free speech” machine affects human development and behaviour. For all the arguments put forth about the purportedly benign nature of language, language is a physical gesture that can affect the bodily functioning of millions of people instantaneously and can be instrumentalist or weaponized accordingly.
Excerpt from The City of Folding Faces by Jayinee Basu reprinted by permission. Copyright Lanternfish Press.
Featured image: Book cover and author photo courtesy Jayinee Basu