The near-future world created by Bangladeshi science-fiction writer Saad Z. Hossain turns up the dial on trends we’re seeing in the now-present world — the snowballing effects of climate change and urbanization, the rise of artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, and the potential for the metaverse that everyone’s talking about to turn into an opiate for the masses.
And then there are the djinns — that is, supernatural beings who turn up in Arabian mythology, and have served as the inspiration for genies like the wisecracking character in Disney’s “Aladdin” movies.
“They are the big mythical creatures of our culture, as fairies are to Europe, or dwarves and giants to Norse mythology,” Hossain explains in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “So, yeah, it’s something we should use.”
But there’s a facet of South Asian culture that’s even more central to Hossain’s literary universe: the sharp division between the moguls who hold all the wealth and the power (including the power of technology), and the “zeroes” who are just trying to get by.
That’s no sci-fi fantasy, Hossain told us over a Zoom connection from his home in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.
“All over the world, and especially in Dhaka, actually you have these pockets of palatial places that are ultra-luxurious and absolutely beautiful to live in. … And then, of course, there are large parts which are in comparison completely unlivable,” he said.
In his cyberpunk-flavored novels — including his latest work, “Kundo Wakes Up,” which is set in a climate-wracked, near-future version of the Bangladeshi city of Chittagong — Hossain focuses on characters who live on the edges of unlivability on Earth, as opposed to starship commanders who are zooming off to distant planets.
Hossain is convinced that the social and economic divides we see today will continue to exist, even if we make it to the super-high-tech, 23rd-century world we see in “Star Trek” sagas.
It’s like the 30-year-old quote that’s attributed to William Gibson, another science-fiction writer who’s one of Hossain’s favorites: “The future has arrived — it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”
“Gibson’s absolutely right, and Gibson’s great,” Hossain said. “I think the issue with him, though, is he’s also just applying his craft to the developed world, where the differences are smaller. As you get further away from that, to less developed parts of the world, the differences are very large — where you have a palatial compound, literally palatial, next to a terrible slum. And the people in the slum are actually the servants of the people in the compound.”
Although the disparities may be more dramatic, they’re not limited to the developing world. Hossain sees parallels between the moguls of old and starry-eyed billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.
“These guys have a degree of power which even established older families, or even kings, don’t,” he said. “The kind of question of power is, can you suddenly decide to go to space? That’s my litmus test, you know. The queen of England, one of the most powerful people in the world, can she decide to go to space suddenly? No. No way.”
Hossain is more interested in addressing social issues in a sci-fi context than in telling tales about traveling to distant worlds.
“For me, that’s a kind of juvenile type of science fiction, where it’s spaceships, weapons, what’s the hyperdrive going to look like,” he said. “Fine. That’s nostalgic, and that’s lovely for all of us, because we all have had space opera when we were growing up. But there’s other stuff to look at in science fiction, which is right now, to me, as I grow older, much more interesting — like how does it affect communities, or how does it affect the mind? How does it affect society in a gentler way?”
That doesn’t mean science fiction has to be as grim as real life. The characters in “Kundo Wakes Up” and Hossain’s other books crack wise with a sharp style of humor that would resonate as strongly in the Bay Area as it would in Bangladesh.
“You can’t force somebody into reading something that’s worthy, but you’re going to have a horrible time reading it,” Hossain said. “For me, humor is universal. It’s also a way of dealing with problems, right? Black humor is one of the best ways of dealing with loss and trouble, so I also want my characters to have that.”
Hossain believes that blending present-day realism with future-day science fiction shouldn’t add up to a pessimistic outlook.
“We are dealing with unprecedented crises, and that’s also an exciting time to look at, to live, to write about, to try and solve these problems,” he said. “It’s not only negative. When there’s a great challenge, there’s also an opportunity to do something. … We are seeing in Dhaka, or in Bangladesh, small-scale, low-cost innovations which are just improving lives daily without being a big thing, without getting a prize.”
Hossain’s ability to work that perspective into his science-fiction tales is a magic trick worthy of Aladdin’s genie.
“We do get some positive things out of this,” he said. “Writing-wise, if exciting things happen, the writing is better. So if you’re living in exciting times, or times of change, the writing should be better.”
Cosmic Log Used Book Club
“Kundo Wakes Up” is just the latest in a loosely connected sci-fi/fantasy series that also includes “Djinn City” and “Cyber Mage” (which are set in Dhaka), and “The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday” (a post-apocalyptic tale that takes place in Kathmandu).
“They’re tenuously linked,” Hossain said. “Same world, but they’re not sequels or prequels. They’re not actually following the same character through a bunch of adventures. It’s basically stand-alone, but they’re connected, because I want to keep building on the world.”
He hasn’t yet fleshed out the details for the next story in the series.
“I want to do a character that’s kind of a half-refugee character, simply because that’s what’s resonating — of course with the Ukrainians, but also [because] in Bangladesh we have the Burmese refugees. There’s millions of them that were pushed out from Myanmar.”
He’s aiming to avoid the typical stereotype of a refugee who’s merely fleeing from one peril after another. “I want to take a character with, like, really nothing, and I want to build them up and make them heroic and powerful — and reverse that trend,” he said.
Hossain is currently reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, which was a 2020 selection for our Cosmic Log Used Book Club. The CLUB Club features books with cosmic themes that have been around long enough to show up at your local library or secondhand book shop.
What other books are on Hossain’s reading list? He says he enjoys a wide range of books — murder mysteries, adventure novels, fantasy series like “Game of Thrones” and “The Wheel of Time,” and even classic romance novels like Jane Austen’s “Persuasion.”
“As long as the characters are good, I’m down for it,” Hossain said. “I love genres of all kinds. As long as it’s not boring, it’s great, because I use it to escape. I just swallow books whole.”
One of his favorites is “Pattern Recognition,” a science-fiction novel by William Gibson that delves into our fixation with patterns and the search for hidden meanings. Even though the book was published back in 2003, it’s a particularly timely selection for the CLUB Club, in light of the rise of mass-audience conspiracy theories and international disinformation campaigns. If only it were just science fiction!
My co-host for the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer who is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and currently lives in Berkeley, Calif. One of her short stories, “Our Vices,” appears in the 2022 edition of the Pushcart Prize anthology. To learn more about Phetteplace, check out her website, DominicaPhetteplace.com.
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