Saad Z. Hossain’s 2019 The Gurkha And the Lord of Tuesday is a standalone science-fantasy novella.
Ambushed, coshed, bound by powerful spells, and sequestered in an out-of-the-way location, the boisterous djinn Melek Ahmar has slumbered for thousands of years. From the perspective of his attackers, the djinn is a problem solved.
For the humans and artificial intelligences of the era in which Melek Ahmar finally wakes, he is quite a different story.
Melek Ahmar is not sure how long he was bound, only that it must have been a very long time. Enfeebled by time, he wanders an unfamiliar world, encountering neither djinn nor human until at last he finds a single human: the elderly Gurkha soldier Bhan Gurung. Curiously unimpressed by the mighty djinn, Gurung guides Melek Ahmar to the nearest city, Kathmandu. Melek Ahmar plans to conquer the city. Gurung has his own reasons for helping the djinn.
Step one in the djinn’s plans: inflame the passions of the city’s malcontents and provoke an uprising. To Melek Ahmar’s surprise, Kathmandu has no malcontents. Thanks to advanced technology and Karma, the artificial intelligence that oversees the city, even the least of Kathmandu’s citizens have enough to keep them happy.
A more intellectual djinn might ask why, if Kathmandu is such a paradise, the old Gurkha chose to live outside it. Melek Ahmar didn’t get where he is today by thinking things through: he focuses instead on his short-term cravings.
Karma noticed Gurung and Melek Ahmar as soon as they entered the city. Both are undocumented. Not only that, Melek Ahmar has a very curious effect on the city’s surveillance systems. Central Administration’s Hamilcar Pande is assigned the task of monitoring and if necessary dealing with the two uninvited visitors.
The djinn is curiosity enough. Gurung is the one who truly catches Hamilcar’s attention. The old soldier is a man inexplicably undocumented in an age when everyone has a file. What little Hamilcar uncovers is baffling: the old man is a mass murderer whose death sentence was overturned through what seems to have been a fluke.
Gurung has unfinished business in Kathmandu. With the djinn’s help, he plans to punish an ancient crime. No matter the cost to the city…
The crime that drives this novel is rooted in a technological decision that seems pretty arbitrary. I’d complain at length about this were it not that we live in a world filled with arbitrary, harmful technological decisions, from robot cars programmed to kill jaywalkers to egregiously sexist credit algorithms. In that context, it’s amazing that the Chinese Room algorithm that runs Kathmandu manages to do as effective a job at keeping people happy as it does and that it does not from time to time randomly convert entire neighbourhoods to Soylent Green.
There are horrific mass murders lurking in the background, but, notwithstanding, this is a delightful light comedy. The stakes may be high but much of the action, from the frustrated djinn’s attempts to foment revolution to Hamilcar’s relationship with the ferocious Colonel Shakia, is endearingly absurd. Terrible things happen but mostly off-stage. And like the best of fantasies, in the end the righteous (for loose definitions of righteous) are suitably rewarded, while the seeming invincible villains get fairly just rewards.
It’s all charming enough, mass murder and torture aside, for me to have ordered the author’s Djinn City, which I am certain will live up to the unrealistic expectations I have for it.