Kundo Wakes Up

by Saad Z. Hossain

“Was it a stretch to call him a friend, Kundo wondered idly, as the train swallowed him from the platform and whisked him into darkness. It was such a loose word now. Friend. Someone on your Echo list? Someone who shared your feed? Someone you physically knew? As he followed the threads of all his connections, he found them severed at the ends, floating in the air. This is how spiders die. Their threads break and they fall.

Kundo Wakes Up is a sci-fi novel (or is it fantasy?) that, on the surface, ticks all the boxes for me. The story is set in an exotic locale (Bangladesh) in the near-ish future, where residents struggle to live with toxic air and rising sea levels. Meanwhile, the benevolent AI that once provided the necessities of life (for free — almost) has decided to quiet quit, gradually leaving everyone to fend for themselves.

Just read this synopsis from the back cover:

Hundreds of miles away from the techno-utopia of Kathmandu, the all-powerful, all-seeing Al known as Karma has gone silent, leaving the ravaged city of Chittagong — along with all its remaining residents — to continue its inexorable fall into the sea.

Kundo, once a famous artist with the karma points to prove it, goes searching for his missing wife, only to uncover more inexplicable disappearances. And so Kundo and a group of motley companions embark on a tumultuous journey through an overwhelming maze made up of Chittagong’s neighborhoods, the hidden back rooms of video game parlors, and the depths of cyberspace, culminating in [spoiler redacted], in search of love, redemption, and a good meal.

Sounds great, right? I thought so too, and the first half of the book was quite compelling. Kundo, we learn, was so mystified by his wife’s sudden decision to leave him that he has been in a sort of daze searching for her, suiting up to brave the toxic air that seems to be everywhere in Chittagong, while obsessed with understanding why she would leave. This has gone on for nearly two years, and in the meantime, Kundo, once the city’s most acclaimed artist, has given up on painting and everything else.

I know it’s sci-fi (or is it fantasy?), but this novel has a believability problem for me, and it starts with Kundo’s relationship with his wife. She is already gone when the story begins, having left a note that clearly says “I’m leaving,” so we don’t get to meet her and never see how she and Kundo interact at all. For me, dialogue between characters is how they really take shape in your mind, but we don’t get any of that between Kundo and his wife. In fact, I’m not sure we ever even learn her name. Instead of any details that would make her seem real, and would help us understand Kundo’s obsession with finding her, we get pages of Kundo going over the many valid reasons why she might have been unhappy enough to leave him, including: that he took her for granted, that they had vastly different interests (fine art vs. gaming), and that she seemed quite close with her male gaming buddies — maybe close enough to run off with them.

It doesn’t sound like a very stable relationship, and while it makes sense that Kundo would be shocked when she left, I just don’t believe he was invested enough in the relationship to drop everything and spend two years looking for her. He seems basically selfish, and selfish people don’t spend time trying to repair or resurrect relationships they neglected. They move on quickly, especially when they are wealthy and famous like Kundo.

But it’s sci-fi (or is it fantasy?), and we must be willing to suspend our disbelief occasionally. So if you can go along with the notion that Kundo is desperately trying to find his wife, there is still a great story to be had in this vividly described world. Unfortunately, the author kind of loses the thread when he starts introducing new characters. The story changes then, for the worse. At first it’s a noir-ish, Blade Runner-esque tale of a loner desperate to unravel a mystery, trying to get information out of people with their own problems and no reason to help him. But the author, inexplicably, forces these new characters to ignore their own self interest and help Kundo.

One case in point is Fara, a single mother of a toddler, and the neighbor of the hacker Kundo hired to help investigate his wife’s disappearance. When Kundo shows up, the hacker has disappeared like his wife, and Fara delivers a note he had left for Kundo. In real life, the interaction would probably end there. In fiction, we have a variety of interesting options. For example, perhaps these two lonely, single people in a hopeless world could (eventually) do something they’ll regret later? Or perhaps Fara, whose circumstances are decidedly worse than Kundo’s, could take advantage of his desperation (and his fat wallet)? But no: Kundo, devoted husband of a long-gone wife, pillar of morality, would not dream of making a pass at Fara. And Fara, despite having a toddler and no prospects, has plenty of time to help the weird loser who knocks on her door. Because reasons.

It goes on like that, with new characters, and before long it’s clear this has become one of those adventure tales that require assembling a “motley crew” (ugh — it actually says that in the blurb). The other crew members are actually fairly interesting characters, but just like Fara, they have no reason to help Kundo, no incentive, no skin in the game. And they are all convinced to join the motley crew (UGH) waaaaay too easily.

But the real problem with this book, the thing that bugs me the most, is a plot point near the end (redacted in the synopsis above) that seems to change it from sci-fi to fantasy. And that is unforgivable. I love reading fantasy as well, but with any sort of speculative fiction, the rulebook needs to be made abundantly clear from the start. If there’s magic, gods, or supernatural abilities, it’s fantasy, and readers need to know that up front in order to set expectations. Introducing supernatural elements after the first couple chapters is, to me, a cardinal sin.

I might have avoided some disappointment if I had noticed the note, just above the synopsis on the back cover, that Kundo Wakes Up is a companion to another novel, The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday. Usually if I know a book is a sequel (or “companion,” whatever that means) I will choose to read the original before the spin-off. But alas, that note was half-obscured by a barcode sticker on my library copy, and I missed it.

I really expected to like this book, but its flaws were too many. It’s a real shame the author couldn’t fulfill the promise of the fascinating world he built. However, the premise was compelling enough that I might eventually check out the novel that inspired this one, knowing now to expect a fantasy story.