Saturday, August 29, 2009

River of Gods - Ian McDonald

Earlier this year I read Cyberabad Days, a short story collection set in the same universe as River of Gods for BSCreview. Cyberabad Days was not light reading but I was so impressed with McDonald’s writing that I immediately ordered copies of Brasyl and River of Gods. I read Brasyl a while ago and now that I have finished River of Gods I think it is safe to say that McDonald is very much under-appreciated as a writer. His work is stunningly imaginative. As with the previous two books I have read, River of Gods deeply impressed me. Ideas almost jump off the pages in this book.

The story is set against a background of India in 2047. A century after its independence was declared India has split up into a number of different states. Our story focuses on the nation of Bharat and its capital Varanasi (this city is also known as Benares). The nation faces huge problems. It is stricken by drought after the monsoon has failed three years running. This has lead to a conflict with the neighbouring nation of Awadh over a dam in the holy river Ganges they are building. With their most important reliable source of water controlled by the enemy tensions rise rapidly. Internally there are problems too, in particularly in the form of a Hindu fundamentalist politician shaking up things. Internationally there is pressure on Bharat too for not having ratified the international agreement on the licensing artificial intelligences. Although higher level ‘aeais’ are vigorously hunted, the nation is a haven for the illegal trade and manufacturing of such software.

River of Gods has quite a complex plot. There are no less than nine characters that get a point of view. A criminal looking for a new source of income, a cop looking for the ultimate enemy, a civil servant looking for political power, a journalist looking for her identity, a scientist looking for her mentor, a professor looking peace, a nute (genderless person) looking for love, a comedian looking for an audience and a wife looking for a place in society. Each of their stories ties in to the overarching theme somehow but what ultimately drives their story is kept hidden until the last part of the novel.

The sheer number of important characters may be something of a challenge for the readers. With so much going on in the background, and the politics of the India McDonald creates really is fascinating, it is quite difficult to keep track of what a certain character was up to by the time they get another chapter. I thought the author created a diverse and interesting group of characters however. It certainly takes a while to get the story going this way, but that investment paid off at the end of the novel. I thought Mr. Nandha, the cop, he reminded me of Mr. Smith from The Matrix for some reason, was particularly well done. The huge amount of pent up anger the man carries around makes him an unpredictable character. You keep expecting him to explode (or have a heart attack).

McDonald divided his novel in five parts, each with Hindi titles for the reader to figure out. Each of the first four parts is divided into chapters named after the point of view character. Part five, where all the stories converge is more or less one big chapter. By that point the events unfold too fast and the story lines intersect too much to separate them. The author throws in a lot of the local lingo in. There’s an eight page glossary in the back of the book with explanations of (mostly) Hindi words. I didn’t really use it a lot, quite few things can be figured out from the context so it does, in my experience, not interrupt the flow of the story. It does give the story an air of authenticity. The author did quite a bit of research on this novel. So much so that another ignorant western guy such as myself could just believe it has been written by a local. It would be interesting to know what someone from India would make of it though. McDonald certainly put his head on the chopping block by obviously attempting a high level of accuracy in describing Indian society as an outsider.

There is also a very speculative side of the story of course. McDonald puts in quite a bit of technological advances. Information technology has progressed to the point where news is continuous and instantly accessible though a device known as a 'hoek'. It sends information directly into the mind of the user. Bharat is also the place where India’s domineering soap ‘Town and Country’ is produced. A show completely acted by aeai actors who achieve fame and status like any movie star of our time. Their live outside the show is as closely followed as the show itself. In physics the progress is considerable as well. Progress in quantum mechanics is particularly relevant to the story, quantum computing in particular. There’s also quite a bit about artificial intelligences and the nature or reality. As the show ‘Town and Country’ shows the lines between artificial intelligence and natural persons becomes pretty blurred for much of the population. This raises some interesting philosophical questions.

River of Gods has just about everything you can possibly expect in a good science fiction novel. There’s a plausible but above all fascinating future history, there’s great characters, interesting technology and a good plot. It is easily one of the best books I have read this year. It is also one of the more challenging reads, there is almost too much put into this novel to take it all in. Pyr has recently reissued a number of McDonald’s novels and put some stunning cover art by Stephan Martiniere on them (I love the elephant detail in the lower left corner of the River of Gods cover for instance). I can highly recommend all three I mentioned in this review. A copy of McDonald’s first novel Desolation Road is on the way, I look forward to reading that one as well.

Book Details
Title: River of Gods
Author: Ian McDonald
Publisher: Pyr
Pages: 599
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59102-436-1
First published: 2004

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