Friday, October 27, 2023

Microreview: The Jinn-Bot of Shantiport by Samit Basu

A retelling of a very famous story in a fascinating, far future, slowly decaying city.

Tell me if you've heard this before. A down at the heels "street-rat" and their monkey live in a beautiful, if corrupt city, where the wealthy do well and other people do not. They are contracted by Antim, a high official in the city's administration to find a powerful artifact, an artifact that has an entity that will provide the owner with whatever they desire. But when they get a hold of the artifact themselves, the equation changes completely. And then there is the attractive noble in the palace and their father, both of whom are overawed by that powerful corrupt official...

Except, this is the far future, the monkey is actually a bot and is her brother, and the mysterious narrator of this entire tale is of uncertain provenance themself.

This is the story of Samit Basu's The Jinn-Bot of Shantiport.

I am going to begin at the ending for a change. In the acknowledgements and notes, Samit Basu makes it absolutely clear that this is an interpretation of the story of Aladdin. He makes it absolutely clear when, after setting up our protagonists, he introduces the Jinn, who first manifests and is described in a way that anyone who has seen the Disney cartoon will recognize. And the novel itself eventually invokes Aladdin in other ways as well for the reader to discover. 

But this is no straightforward retelling of Aladdin in the far future. Lina is our Aladdin, but rather than just being a straight up "street-rat", she is the daughter of failed revolutionaries. She is still living hand-to-mouth and has to constantly avoid the authorities who keep tabs on her.  Her brother is a constructed bot in the shape of a monkey. Bador (formerly Danil) has a lot of hopes and plans. Much more than Abu from that cartoon does. Even in a world where bots are common members of society, he does not have what he desperately craves, and that is respect. Oh, and also complete and free rights for bots like himself. He is more than he appears, however, as early on he gets mixed up in a tournament fight between two large Pacific Rim-style bots and is not the hopeless combatant you might expect. Not by a long way.

And of course the Jinn. This is a novel where a lot of technology is indistinguishable from magic, but even so, the Jinn works by means that are mysterious to everyone. It's a powerful AI, and an alien one at at. It has strict and familiar rules (3 "wishes") that can be potentially abused by clever wording. It's not so much a character as a nearly literal deus ex machina.

But if unlike the movie the Jinn is not a character, there is an additional one, and one right in front of the reader. The narrator of this story. One of the themes I've explored in my reviews, learned intently from the 4th Street Fantasy convention, is that point of view solves everything. The choice of POV is important, crucial, and tells as much about the story as anything else. That simple choice (or choices if you go multiple) in who you have to tell your story shapes your novel in intriguing and important ways.

So who is the narrator of this story? It's not Lina or her brother, or even their mother who has big plans for the Jinn and its power. It's not the Jinn, the Jinn is not a character here as it is in the aforementioned movie. The Not-Prince, (our Princess Jasmine analogue) is not the narrator, either. Instead, the narrator is an entity of some kind found at the beginning by Lina and her brother. This entity says it's a "story-bot" but it doesn't truly explain at first what that means (and so we the reader have to figure it out.

The Story-Bot, Moku,  as point of view means we get externality on both the siblings and the action in general and provides us with a "two-shot" sort of look at Shantiport and its denizens, and life.

However, this is an entity that they don't understand, and as things progress and secrets are revealed, Moku themselves aren't quite what they appear, or even think that they are. 

The setting is rich and interesting. Right from the first chapter, we get a view of a complex and complicated far future city that is literally crumbling and sinking, but is in the end, still home. It's a city of power and poverty, of oppression and opportunity. A city where crime lords control swaths of the city and put on fighting tournaments, where tourists from afar come to marvel at the ruins and history of a city that has lasted thousands of years and cycles of history, and where there are ancient secrets and technologies buried in the muck. Basu's writing is immersive, evocative, sensory and it put me as a reader right into Shanti-port. It's a place I would love to visit and photograph...but make no mistake, I'd always have to watch my back.

Even beyond the main characters, Basu peoples this world with a fascinating gallery of characters large and small. While character development and arcs are limited to the main characters, even small roles, like the bot General Nagpoe. Oh, and Tanai. Tanai is a mystery character, a space hero who is powerful, dangerous and has an agenda of his own. Struggles over directing him, neutralizing him, or getting him on side are an important side plot in the novel.

But even more than the interesting characters and setting is the prevailing theme of the novel, a theme that overawed in my mind the other strong virtue And that theme is power.

So, what can one do with "wishes" when dealing with a powerful alien techno-djinn at one's command? There is a lot of debate between the characters as to what to do with such power, and how to keep such power out of the hands of those who would abuse it. There is a lot of matter thinking about the consequences of "Wishes" and the limits of unbridled and sudden change. Shantiport is a tower slowly decaying and sinking, and even an alien techno-djinn cannot solve all of its problems without what might be very harsh consequences for a lot of people. And then there are the questions of what to use the "wishes" for--personal or social reasons. 

As Lina says:

"People really show you who they are when they think you serve them, and they have power over you."

These questions of power, above and beyond the plot and action beats, are what really drive the novel. The core of this story at the end is, for me, about power: What do you do to get it, keep it and what do you do with it? Basu gives us no easy answers and while the main protagonists go well by the experience, there is in the end no "happily ever after". The world, and what they do and what happens is very much a work in progress.

The contemporary novel that The Jinn-Bot of Shantiport reminds me of, on a couple of axes, is The Archive Undying by Emma Mieko Candon.  Again, far future setting in a city that has seen much better days. Again, the technology as nearly magic. Again, artificial intelligences, and their rights, powers, prerequisites, and goals as strong actors in the narrative. Again, dangerous quests mixed with a street-level concern for the citizens of the city-state. The other work both works are in dialogue with is Saad Houssain's The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday, which again has AIs, magic, technology and a far future setting. Both Archive and this novel have huge bots thundering around the landscape. The Kathmandu of The Gurkha and Shant-port are very much panopticons by the authorities and trying to avoid that notice is plot-relevant and important.  And all three have a mythic resonance. Archive has AIs as Gods. Gurkha has a Djinn King. This novel has mysterious alien Techno-djinn, a story structure based on the Arabian Nights and like the other two, puts that blend of science and magic (or indistinguishable from magic science) on high and comes up with a very spicy and tangy result. 


The Math

Highlights: Strong retelling of Aladdin, techno magic worldbuilding melds wonderfully with setting,  excellent ponderings of the costs of power and change

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Basu, Samit, The Jinn-Bot of Shantiport, [Tordotcom, 2023]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I'm just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.