Kundo Wakes Up, from Tor Publishing, by Saad Z Hossain, welcomes you to a dystopian future where Artificial Intelligence (AI) acts as an omnipotent ruler/deity. However in the slowly dying city of Chittagong the AI has abandoned its responsibilities leaving the inhabitants to their own devices.
Unfortunately as Karma, the name of AI, also helps regulate the environment and living conditions, it means life isn’t as stable or safe as it once was. Kundo, a formally successful artist with enough Karma points (credit or money) to allow him a comfortable life, is only too aware of the city’s dysfunction.
However, he too is gripped by the lassitude that comes from the feelings of impending doom. His wife had vanished five years ago, but only now is he stirring himself to figure out how and why. As she had been addicted to video games he hopes that searching for her through those avenues will help him find her.
However, his search takes him down a rabbit hole of virtual reality, gaming and strange mythology that exists outside of the carefully regulated world created by Karma. Kundo’s first stop is to try and track down a hacker acquaintance who had agreed to look into his wife’s disappearance.
However, when the hacker turns out to also have vanished he is forced to set out on an even murkier, and darker trail. For beneath the underworld of virtual reality gaming, lies an even murkier game – The Dark Road. Only a select few can find their way to playing it, and to play it you have to be fully immersed in a system through a special gaming bed.
With the aid of a dying criminal overlord, a hacker who is addicted to a type of implanted hardware feed, and the neighbour of his hacker acquaintance, Kundo eventually discovers the secret behind the mysterious disappearances and what awaits those who successfully navigate The Dark Road. And it’s not what he, or anyone, had expected.
Hossain has created a piece of speculative fiction set in a future world South East Asia that moves the cyber punk genre in a whole new direction. While the idea of totally immersive gaming might not be new, the world the The Dark Road brings its winners into is. A mythical city of the Djinn isn’t something that pops up too often in dystopian writing.
While the character of Kundo is initially a bit of a hopeless fellow, allowing circumstances to control his life, once he shakes himself free of his complacent dependancy on the AI, he begins to rediscover the joys of living. The people he meets on his journey each have a hand in nudging him back to the world, but at the same time he moves them beyond the places where they’ve been stuck.
In some ways Kundo Wakes Up is a great piece of satire about how we need to pull our collective heads out of our technology and see the people around us. It is far too easy to allow life to be lived for us rather than to engage in life.
Kundo Wakes Up is a wonderful story populated with great characters – read it and think about your own dependancy on devices. It might make you think.