The Jinn-Bot of Shantiport

The new novel from Samit Basu is billed as a science fiction version of Aladdin, which it is, but it is also so much more.

Shantiport (shanty port) is a far future city on a dying Earth that is somehow part of a galactic civilization. There are aliens, there is space travel, but for most of the citizens of Shantiport such things are a distant dream. So much, so Blade Runner.

The city is ruled over by the Tiger Clan, a mixture of royal family and corporation whose interests are much wider than one failing spaceport. Technically the ruler of the city is the Jomidar, Kumir Saptam, but he is beholden to his masters in Tiger Central. Also he has to reckon with other powers such as the oligarch, Shakun Antim, and the crime lord, Paneera.

There are those in the city who dream of revolution, of a return to a more democratic society. Some years ago, a group of such revolutionaries got hold of some alien tech, which they hoped would help them overthrow the Tigers. But they were betrayed, and their leaders made to disappear. These days few remember, but those revolutionaries had family. And they had alien tech.

Zohra was once a brilliant bot scientist. Now she is a frightened, ageing mother, trying to keep her two children safe from the Tigers, while never letting the flame of revolution die. Those children are Lina, now a beautiful young woman, and Bador, who is a monkey-bot.

Lina is a classic cyberpunk heroine. This is how Basu has another character describe her:

You’re augmented, capable of incredible physical feats. That body is a masterpiece. You owe your uncanny beauty to gene-editors, your self-healing body to bioengineers, I wouldn’t be surprised if your parents had pheromone work done to make you extra-sexy.

Bador is something very different. In appearance he is a cyborg langur, but he has enough human DNA to make him legally Lina’s brother. He has enough war-bot components to make him an impressive fighter. But he’s a bot. Zohra daren’t trust him with family secrets, because if he is ever captured he won’t be able to avoid giving them up. Also she programmed him to love his family. And he does love them, but he hates knowing that he had no choice in the matter.

So where does Aladdin come into all this? Remember that alien tech? Somewhere in the city, treasure has been concealed. If Lina and Bador can find it, anything is possible. Instead they find Moku.

Who is Moku? He is our viewpoint character. He is a bot. An alien bot, yes, but one who has been programmed to collect and tell stories. Lina and Bador seem interesting people, so he is willing to hang around with them and help out. Having a lot of ethics programming, he’s somewhat dubious about their activities, but most of the humans in Shantiport seem morally grey to him.

This being a Samit Basu novel, The Jinn-bot of Shantiport is full of his wry sense of humour. Here he is explaining why Earth is safe from aliens:

Your planet’s admin has been on leave for the last two of your centuries, and all requests pending to destroy or invade your planet would have been on hold in any case. But none have even been made.

He has a splendid description of Paneer’s lair:

As a crimelord den, it doesn’t disappoint. It looks like someone took a gigantic submarine, scooped out all the equipment, stuck it far underground, and then built a replica of an ancient cathedral in it. We walk through a central line of marble pillars, behind which lie dark alcoves suitable for dragging people into. A quick scan reveals closed circular doors lining the walls, no doubt leading to many exciting deaths, possibly involving hungry fish.

Basu also has a fine line in putting down oligarchs. Here is Zohra on Shakun Antim:

“Shakun is no genius,” Zohra says. “He just spends a lot of money convincing people he is one. He might be too powerful for any system or legal process to punish, but what oligarch isn’t? His ideas are stolen, his moves are remakes. He just invests heavily in large teams that study his opponents, prepare him for every situation, and then he presents their work in the most dramatic way possible. He isn’t even that charismatic! He just acquires that reputation though influence.”

To be fair, he sounds a lot smarter than Elon Musk.

Anyway, there is, eventually, a jinn, with a lamp and three wishes. In addition we get a magic ring, and a roc-bot. Bador has plenty of opportunities to show off his martial arts moves in fights with giant bots that have clearly been designed by anime fans. Lina gets to meet a handsome prince (who, rather delightfully, has a character reminiscent of a Bond girl), and Bador gets to meet an actual alien space hero.

As Basu admits in the Acknowledgements, the connection to the actual plot of Aladdin gets somewhat lost along the way, but that doesn’t matter. By the end of the book you’ll end up loving Lina, Bador and Moku; you’ll be thinking about the practicalities of revolutions and about bot rights; and you’ll be wondering if parents try to program their biological children as ruthlessly as they might program a bot.

book cover
Title: The Jinn-Bot of Shantiport
By: Samit Basu
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
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