In a world in which the term “South Asian speculative fiction” too often appears to be a placeholder for a mishmash of Bollywood tropes and SparkNote versions of ancient epics (the Indian critic T. G. Shenoy memorably labelled such work “Biryani Sauce”), a new work by Bangladeshi writer Saad Z. Hossain always comes as a breath of fresh air. In Djinn City (2017), Hossain introduced us to the fractious world of the djinns, their fraught relations with human beings, and the belligerent Matteras’s plans to end the long-standing djinn “policy of seclusion” by flooding the Bay of Bengal. Timely intervention from members of the Khan Rahman clan saved the city of Dhaka from inundation—but only, it seems, for a while. By the time that the events of Cyber Mage (2022) come to pass, humans have done to themselves what Matteras planned to do to them: in a world ravaged by climate catastrophe (called the “Disintegration Era”), nation-states have collapsed, giving way to AI-administered, corporate-controlled slices of territory. Society is now post-labour: “Military labor was specialized or droned, food production was lab driven, and industrial production was entirely automated” (p. 46).
Automation, however, decidedly does not mean utopia. Hossain’s world, instead, is borderline dystopic. It is divided into full citizens—those who own shares in the corporations, and live within carefully calibrated gated communities—and the “cardless,” relegated to the outside:
There was a grand, snake like bazaar, where trade was untaxed and free, as long as you had the muscle to back it up. The Mirpur zone was a quarantined area, meaning the three million people squeezed into it were not allowed to legally leave. They had once been the citizens of the country known as Bangladesh, and now were allegedly citizens of the Dhaka City Corporation, some of them with single shares in either the DCC or Mirpur Inc, with the ensuing privileges. Many had no shares, however, and these were effectively non people, but still essential for population density, which is why the City fed them and let them stay inside the borders … Much of the city was like this, other than the privileged enclaves, like Dhanmondi or the Tri-State, which protected their exclusivity with maximum force. Of course, the Tri-State was incorporated and anyone living within had shareholder status—actual valuable shares. This meant they counted. As actual people. They had equity in the world. (p. 20)
The role of the “cardless” is to generate, through the passive use of their bodies, the nanoparticles that are then utilised to cleanse the environment of its toxicity, and preserve the habitats of the shareholder-citizens:
Nano tech worked really well in high density areas. It essentially used human bodies to produce biocompatible molecules that spewed into the air with every exhaled breath, through every human pore; invisible spores that fought disease, scrubbed carbon, controlled the temperature and water, useful stuff. Climate AI used these micromachines to create safe climates, to fight off bad nanotech, the invisible bubbles in which humans lived. (p. 47)
The novel’s protagonist is yet another member of the irrepressible Khan Rahman clan: Marzuk, a fifteen-year-old boy from Dhaka, is a computer hacker par excellence, and one of the most famous players in the online game universe of Final Fantasy 9000. Final Fantasy itself is part of a broader, world-spanning augmented reality system known as “the Virtuality.” But of late, Marzuk’s sojourn in the Virtuality has been subject to interference by what appears to be a mysterious AI of uncertain origins, an entity that Marzuk nicknames “Kali.” Marzuk—and his close friend from the gaming world, KPopRegi [(“Regi” for short)—devise ways for Marzuk to “speak” to Kali. In the meantime, his own services as a hacker are called into service for a particularly mysterious job, which brings him into close contact with a golem with a penchant for relieving people of their heads, and the powerful—and secretive—Securex Corporation. And if this were not enough, Marzuk has problems in the meat world to contend with: having fallen for a girl called Amina, Marzuk has taken the significant step of enrolling in school to be near her. Once in school, however, he finds himself subject to the attentions of the vicious school bully, Hinku, ostracised by his peers, and with only “The Mongolian”—an embittered, ex-public-airport-managing AI, now in charge of overseeing the school’s utilities—to talk to. As Marzuk’s investigations lead him to the terrifying possibility that the djinns’ latest plans to mess with humanity include the building of an unknown “God machine,” these various strands—and people—in his life move to intersect and collide, with world-altering consequences.
Cyber Mage is a partial sequel to Djinn City, and set in the same world as Hossain’s The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday (2019). The entirety of the action takes place in a near-future Dhaka (or what used to be Dhaka). Hossain’s vision of that future is both vividly imagined, but also grounded. For example, biochemical microchips in the human body—that allow access to the Virtuality—are a standard staple of future-looking science fiction (often called “neural laces”), but we are also told about how their evolution—and intermittent malfunctioning—has led to huge lawsuits, bankrupted massive corporations, and is now tightly regulated—after a fashion. This is the exact way in which you’d expect brain-computer interface technology to develop in our actually existing hyper-capitalist world: chaotically, with collateral damage, and a heavy dose of the law. The centrality of Final Fantasy 9000 to the story—with the game being described as more elaborate and larger than the meat-world, and overseen by Saka, the only level-10 AI in existence—might seem to belong more closer to the realm of fantasy, until you remember that the revolution in AI engineering in the last years of the twentieth century was built upon gaming chips, as that was where the maximum amount of processing power was to be found. With that historical context, this first description of Saka is both vivid and very believable:
Far away, however, a much higher mind was waking up. Deep under Ueno Park, in the Taito ward of Tokyo, in a fusion powered bunker, banks of quantum computers began to cascade on. The temperature was well below freezing, and not even a stray photon could be found here. It was, in its way, an alien landscape, suitable for the most powerful mind human ingenuity had ever created, and tellingly, made solely for human entertainment. (p. 303)
Indeed, throughout the story, technology—and technological development—is treated in a matter-of-fact, almost deadpan way, allowing readers to piece together its gradual and uneasy integration into the world. And finally, there is social reality: while the Dhaka of the future is bleak, Hossain avoids the temptation of turning dystopia into pastiche. Marduk’s forays into Dhaka City Corporation reveals an urban agglomeration where individuals continue to get by and even negotiate spaces for themselves—not all that different from the present, if he thinks about it.
Authoritarian collapse is always around the corner, of course, as we are reminded from time to time:
Djibrel held up a ten minute card, ten satellite minutes on the net: communication, holograms, smart buildings, entertainment, information, ten minutes of real life, which every shareholder took for granted. Out here, the denizens knew a simple truth: Echoes could be turned off. You could be cut away from all the good stuff if you had no shares, and then suddenly paradise turned into a shit walled hovel. (p. 99)
That said, however, while the world seems to be teetering on the edge of totalitarian dystopia, Cyber Mage (even in its thrill-a-minute ending) gives you the feeling that there remains too much complexity and heterogeneity for it to ever come entirely within that form of homogenous control. While it might seem odd, then, to call Cyber Mage optimistic—it does, after all, paint a society where nanoparticles literally “flow” from poor areas to rich areas!—there is nonetheless a strain of optimism in how it provides us a glimpse of an all too possible future, a worst of all possible worlds, and affirms a resistance against falling into that kind of world.
A good part of this effect is accomplished through the figure of Marzuk, a truly memorable character. Through the web of relationships that he has with the novel’s other central characters—some human and some not (his relationships with the AIs Kali and The Mongolian are perhaps the most compelling parts of the story)—we get a sometimes conflicted, often confused, but fundamentally decent, and highly relatable person. In particular, Hossain has us rooting for Marzuk through an extremely skilful—and at times, borderline disturbing—depiction of high school bullying. As anyone who has been bullied at school knows, its unique cocktail of helplessness and alienation can trigger deep—and potentially lifelong—auma. Marzuk’s siege mentality in response to bullying, the helplessness or complicity of the “adults,” the way in which his own mind taunts him into further trouble, and the moment of snapping (“Almost he sagged, muscles slackening off his bones, supine, until his body discovered in its spinal column some thread of steel ...” [p. 184])—are recorded with the meticulousness of a documentary. In keeping with Hossain’s general style, the final resolution is both unexpected, but also deeply satisfying.
Another satisfying part of Cyber Mage’s conclusion is Hossain’s attention to collective action. Yes, there are the spectacular sword fights and the djinn battles, and acts of individual heroism. However, two of the most consequential part of the story’s climax turn upon collective action: a successful leveraging of it on the one hand, and a failure—or refusal—to turn to the collective on the other. The future fate of Dhaka—and indeed, the world—hangs upon these two events. And in that sense, it is refreshing to see a plot resolution where even the greatest of all hackers is helpless without community and without a movement.
Cyber Mage’s dense—and at times overwhelming—plot, and frenetic pace, is held together by Hossain’s distinctive narrative voice. In a previous review, I had remarked upon Hossain’s enviable ability to switch between “multiple registers … between darkly comic, wryly ironic, understated and epic, as the situation demands.” That style is preserved and developed in Cyber Mage. So, interspersed between chuntering AIs and teenage angst, we have moments of grandeur:
It was that weird, disorienting time between sunset and true night, depressing, mosquito infested, hazy with the corpses of dead ideas. (p. 92)
And of an almost epic melancholy:
There was a word for it in Djinn, duria, the melancholic attraction to ruins, the yearning for decayed grandeur, that bittersweet satisfaction of finding that every party, in fact, ends the same way. It was the hopelessness of being proven right. (p. 168)
Much like these lines, Cyber Mage, too, lingers in the mind long after the reader has put it down.