Usually when we think of djinn, we think of fantasy tales. And usually when we think of AI overlords, we think of cyberpunk sci-fi. But one day, not so long from now, when we think of stories involving djinn and AI, we’ll think of Saad Z. Hossain, author of the cyberpunk sci-fi / cli-fi / urban fantasy novella Kundo Wakes Up (paperback, Kindle). In the following email interview, Hossain talks about this genre-mashing story, the novella that narratively preceded it, The Gurkha And The Lord Of Tuesday, and the new novel that narratively precedes both of them, Cyber Mage.
Let’s start with some background. For people who didn’t read it, what was The Gurkha And The Lord Of Tuesday about, and what kind of world was it set in?
It’s set in the future, where rampant nanotech has sort of ruined the world, amongst other things like climate change. The human response is to create pockets of viable living space by having human bodies themselves create counter nano particles. The idea, though, is really to explore the nature of paradise in the future, where AI governance and human tech can create something utopian, but even in the best case, even in a situation where there is no resource scarcity, can fairness, human independence, and human achievement exist at the same time?
And then what is Kundo Wakes Up about, and how is it connected to The Gurkha And The Lord Of Tuesday in terms of both chronology and narrative?
So in Gurkha the AI Karma rules the city of Kathmandu. In Kundo, a sister version of the same mind rules the coastal city of Chittagong, only in this case, climate change has gone too far and the place is slowly drowning. Kundo roughly follows Gurkha, perhaps by a few years. The scope of Kundo is much smaller, it’s more about loss as a community.
In Kundo Wakes Up, the Kundo in question was a famous artist. What kind of art did he do, and why did that work best for the story as opposed to having him be some other kind of artist? Or a writer? Or a guy who interviews writers on his website?
He’s a painter. I needed a talent which could severely burn out, but also something that was easily accessible to people; people can react viscerally to paintings in a way which is more direct than the written word. In the end, though, I think all the creative arts come from the same source, the same spring of inspiration. None of us really understand why the creativity flows, and why it shuts off sometimes.
And in a similar vein, is there a reason you had him be an artist as opposed to someone who’s not in a creative field, like someone who works in retail or sells insurance?
Like almost all artists, Kundo was self-absorbed to a fault. I think it fit the story, that he spent the most “successful” years of his life in a closed world of his own making, literally losing touch with reality, his family, his friends, even the city itself. It would be strange for someone in a more normal 9-5 job to sort of lose touch like that. Also of course, in a relatively introspective piece like this, I felt more comfortable dealing with the mind of an artist.
Kundo Wakes Up is a mix of cyberpunk sci-fi and urban fantasy. But are there any other genres at work in this story as well?
Well, Climate Sci-Fi? The backdrop really is of a city failing, people leaving, despite the best efforts of technology. I try not to let genre influence what I want to do. It’s much harder to be original if you’re thinking about labels.
In terms of influences, are there any writers or stories that had a big influence on Kundo Wakes Up but not on The Gurkha And The Lord Of Tuesday? Or, for that matter, any of your other books?
Murakami maybe? I wanted a smaller story this time, something contained and personal. Gurkha was bombastic, larger than life, about Djinn Kings and evil oligarchs. This story is more about the losers.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Did any of those things have a big influence on Kundo Wakes Up?
I play a lot of video games, so the gaming aspect of it comes in always. I can see that gaming will slowly engulf all forms of entertainment. The kind of virtual worlds that business men are trying to build already exists in vast open world games, and these spaces will only get bigger as the games get bigger. Games like Red Dead Redemption 2, Grand Theft Auto 5, Elden Ring, to just name a few are so huge, with so many people playing, that it’s possible to imagine a world one day when it is large enough to contain your whole life.
I get the sense — from both having read The Gurkha And The Lord Of Tuesday and what I know of Kundo Wakes Up — that while these books are set in the same fictional universe, they’re not parts of a larger story. They’re not, say, the first two books of a trilogy. Am I right?
You’re right they’re not part of the same story. There is no larger connective Deus Ex Machina. I’m more into tenuous, tertiary threads connecting the world.
But having said that, will there be more books set in this world?
The very frank truth is I don’t know if there will be any more. Tor.com ordered two novellas and I wrote them. [But] I want to keep exploring this near future djinn world. I’m enjoying the novella format, it kind of lets a snapshot of a situation breathe.
Now, along with Kundo Wakes Up, you also recently put out a novel that’s connected to The Gurkha And The Lord Of Tuesday and Kundo Wakes Up called Cyber Mage. What is that story about, plot-wise, and when and where is it set?
Cyber Mage is set just before Gurkha and Kundo. It’s really about the advent of the new world order, where AI is set to take over the functions of human governance. I personally feel that human governance is becoming harder to manage, and eventual digitization is required to set things right. There’s just too many loopholes to try and plug, too many protests, marches, petitions; I am in support of citizen activism, but if activism is required every day, every hour just to stop a calamity, then we need to rethink why we are putting broken humans in charge of a broken system.
Is Cyber Mage in the same vein as The Gurkha And The Lord Of Tuesday and Kundo Wakes Up, genre wise?
They’re all same, genre wise, world wise, even with recurring characters. It’s difficult for me to stick to a genre, since I’m using cyberpunk and urban fantasy elements. At some point I hope to get the djinns up to space.
Given their connections, I’m guessing that people who enjoy The Gurkha And The Lord Of Tuesday and Kundo Wakes Up will like Cyber Mage, too.
I hope they’ll love both. Kundo is quite a bit darker than Cyber Mage, so it depends on what you’re in the mood for. They overlap characters, and there’s a lot of ReGi in Cyber Mage, so you get a better look at who she actually is. Cyber Mage has a lot more world building, so if you’re into that stuff, it’s probably more fun.
Cool. Earlier I asked if any movies, TV shows, and games had influenced Kundo Wakes Up. But I want to flip things around and ask if you think Kundo Wakes Up could work as a movie, show, or game?
I think Kundo would work great as a movie. It’s very atmospheric, with the drowning world and these desolate city scapes.
And if someone wanted to make that movie, who would you want them to cast as the main characters?
I’d prefer to set the movie in Chittagong itself, or a fantasy version of Chittagong, so the actors would preferably be brown, of Indian origin at least. That being said, I think the story could work in any coastal city really, given the way climate change is going, it’s not going to be long before all of them start feeling the water.
So, is there anything else you think people should know about Kundo Wakes Up?
Kundo Wakes Up is not a huge action book. It’s more about the mental state of a person. I think if you don’t like Kundo himself, then there’s every chance that you won’t like the book. It also has less overt humor in it, which is something maybe people expect from me. In that sense, it balances out Gurkha well. I think together, the two novellas have a nice dichotomy.
Finally, if someone enjoys Kundo Wakes Up, they’ll probably read The Gurkha And The Lord Of Tuesday and Cyber Mage, if they haven’t already. But after they’ve read that, which of your other books would you suggest they read and why that one?
I think after the two novellas, you could read Djinn City and then Cyber Mage, since they’re kind of a pair, even though they’re not linear sequels. Escape From Baghdad is my first book and maybe my favorite; it doesn’t focus so much on djinns, but I put a lot into it, as most authors do in their first work, since there’s no guarantee there will be another one.