Journey to Kumbooda, by Paul Buchheit

journey-to-kumbooda-by-paul-buchheitGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: America House
Published: 2002
Reviewer Rating: onehalfstars
Book Review by Lynn Nicole Louis

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In Journey to Kumbooda, Paul and his brother-in-law Gene travel to Kumbooda to search for Marie, Paul’s wife. Marie, a computer expert and cognitive scientist, had returned to Kumbooda some months earlier to participate in some high-level research into artificial intelligence and language. When Kumbooda suddenly closes its borders and allows no contact with the outside, and after receiving no assistance through formal channels, Paul and Gene decide they must find Marie on their own.

It’s easy to detect the care that Buchheit lavished on his prose. It’s heavy, thick with description, almost Poe-like in feel and tone. But where Poe’s lush, descriptive sentences combined and built on one another to establish some of the best atmospheres in literature, Buchheit’s are more like a bunch of soldiers standing around, each one from a different nation and having nothing to do with one another. Taken individually, there are some beautiful passages here; taken as a whole, they lose their ability to delight, and become a morass of excess wordage to be hacked through rather than enjoyed.

Buchheit is a professor of computer science, and his in-depth knowledge shows. There are a variety of ‘logic’ puzzles presented in the tale, some easily recognizable and others buried in the flow of the story and not so easy to pick out. He espouses some philosophies about the nature of intelligence and language, and poses an interesting question: if the brain is no more than a computer, what would we have if we could build a computer that mimics a human brain in action and ability?

Despite some lovely sentences and an interesting theme, Journey to Kumbooda failed for me as a story. Buchheit’s surreal tale is too surreal; many of the events in the story seem unlikely to me, or not well thought out, or just nonsensical. At no time did I ever get immersed and believe it was ‘happening’. His logic puzzles detract rather than add, and his preference for using ten words when one would do results in what is to me an interesting dilemma: the book is too short for the story he wants to tell, and too long for the story he does tell.

Although Gene’s and Paul’s mission never wavers, Buchheit’s plot does, traversing through numerous dead ends and false starts. The ending was particularly disappointing, a violation of a rule drummed into every beginning author’s head, though it went a long way explaining why the tale seemed so surreal and unlikely. I won’t say more, but when I finished the final page, I couldn’t help but feel deceived and cheated. Not really how you want someone to feel who’s just invested a few hours in your book.

Can I recommend it? That’s a tricky question. Despite my disappointment with the end, its dense, overwritten prose, and its unlikely plot, there was something about it. There really are some nice passages, some turns of phrase that will stick with you when you are done (for good or bad!). I like the questions he poses and their moral implications. Paul’s single-minded devotion to rescuing his wife is admirable. If artificial intelligence and its associated philosophical questions interest you, if you like logic puzzles, or if you’re one of those readers who likes thick, overly descriptive prose, this one might be worth your investment. If you mainly read for pleasure and escapism, you’ll want to avoid the frustrations you’ll find here and look elsewhere.

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