By Sabrina Fatma Ahmad
Bangladeshi dystopian fiction author Saad Z Hossain tackles climate change, social inequality, crime and violence in his ‘djinn-tastic’ fantasy trilogy. MWB reviews his latest novel.
It’s the year 2089, and all those warnings about climate change have been proven right. And all those editorials about our ‘demographic dividends’ have also been proven right: in ways no one could have predicted. Somehow, science intervened in the nick of time, and life in this post-apocalyptic world is still possible, thanks to biological nanotech pumped out in large volumes into the damaged atmosphere. These can be incubated and regenerated in human bodies, so suddenly a large population is desirable to maintain a stable, livable micro-climate, and Dhaka, that most overcrowded of city is a hot ticket.
It is against this backdrop that Bangladesh-based sci-fi writer Saad Z Hossain sets Cyber Mage, the latest addition to his Djinn series, which includes Djinn City and The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday. It centers around the young Marzuk, a teen hacker prodigy famous online as The Cyber Mage. He can take down governments with a few keystrokes and numbers the Russian mafia amongst his dedicated clientele, but now must face his greatest offline challenge: to navigate the jungle of school politics and win the favour of the girl he loves. This bold plan goes pie-shaped thanks to some djinn intervention (djinntervention?) and suddenly Marzuk is having to scramble to save his city from a hostile takeover by a supernatural AI.
The world-building in this story is like Yuval Noah Harari on acid. I don’t know enough about nanotechnology or blockchain or even gaming to say if the science would hold up IRL, but the rules of this Djinn City are so thoroughly codified, it is an immersive experience reading it. The plot is simultaneously violent and cheesy, laugh-out-loud funny, and unbearably tragic at times. A word of caution to the uninitiated: much like the way a Salman Rushdie novel demands of its reader to assume and occupy multiple identities (South Asian/immigrant/historian/rebel etc) so too do Saad Z Hussain’s novels require a certain knowledge of pop culture, gaming, biotech, etc, and it helps to have an understanding of the cultural nuances of that Dhaka City life. This isn’t to say that these stories will not appeal to those who aren’t up to speed. There’s enough with and momentum in the novel to appeal to a wide range of readers, but the more you know, the more you enjoy it. Saad Z Hossain holds a razor to the jugular of present day socio-economic realities in a way that is hard to stomach, but impossible to look away.
Saad Z. Hossain is a Bangladeshi author writing in English. He lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
His war satire, Escape from Baghdad!, was published in 2015 by Unnamed Press in the US, and Aleph in India. It was translated into French by Agullo Editions, as Bagdad la Grande Evasion. This book was a finalist for the Grand Prix de L’imaginaire 2018.
His second book, Djinn City, was released in 2017 by Unnamed Press, Aleph Book Company, and Bengal Lights Publications. It was also published in French by Agullo Editions in October 2020, translated by Jean Francois Le Ruyet, who subsequently won the 2021 Grand Prix de L’imaginaire for his work on the book.
His third The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday, was published in summer 2019 by Tor.com. It has received critical acclaim and was a finalist for the Locus Awards as well as the IGNYTE Awards 2020 by Fiyahcon.