Sunday, July 24, 2016

Cyberabad Days - Ian McDonald

This review is a rewritten version of a piece I wrote in 2009. I have reread the collection last week but my opinion of it hasn't changed much. The original piece showed I have gotten a bit better at writing reviews in the past few years so I have done a thorough rewrite.

Cyberabad Days was the first work by Ian McDonald I've read. It is a collection of short fiction set in the same future as McDonald's novel River of Gods, published in 2004. The novel is set  in India in 2047, one century after it declared its independence, and shows a subcontinent broken up into a dozen warring states. River of Gods may well be McDonald's most ambitious novel. It's a huge book, both in terms of ideas and page count. It isn't required reading to understand the stories in this collection but you will get a little more out of it if you have. McDonald fleshes out some concepts used in the novel in these short stories.

The collection contains seven stories, all but one published before in various magazines and anthologies. Most stories are set in the 2040s in various places in India. Some start a bit earlier and one overshoots the novel by decades. We see the fractured sub continent from various places. The focus of the stories is not so much on the politics of the break up of India however. McDonald is much more interested in the impact of technology and science on society. When he does refer to it, it is usually briefly. I guess the main character from Vishnu at the Cat Circus describes the process best.
I can understand the War of Schism: that India was like one of those big, noisy, rambunctious families into which the venerable grandmother drops for her six-month sojourn and within two days sons are at their fathers' throats. And mothers at their daughters', and the sisters feud and the brothers fight and the cousins uncles aunts all take sides and the family shatters like a diamond along the faults and flaws that gave it its beauty.

Vishnu on the War of Schism - Vishnu at the Cat Cirsus
Of course in its long history India has rarely been united as one state and it certainly isn't a classic nation state. The idea that it is one country may just be colonial wishful thinking. Given the social, religious and ethnic stresses on the country, a further division of what was once British India is not such an unlikely scenario. Even if it doesn't seem to be imminent. In his divided India McDonald sets a number of stories that describe the impact of rapid technological development on a developing nation. Issues such as environmental pressures, demographic change, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and communication technology are discussed in the various stories through the eyes of mostly young characters.

In Sanjeev and Robotwallah (2007, Fast Forward 1, edited by Lou Anders) we meet a young boy who becomes obsessed with robots ever since witnessing a number of battle robots in action near the village he grows up in. Robotics and artificial intelligence have made huge advances. War is no longer a matter of soldier against soldier, robots do the actual fighting. They do need to be remotely controlled to an extent though. After one of the wars lays waste to the fields that feed his village, Sanjeev moves to the city of Varanasi, a place that is central to McDonald's future India. There he meets a number of teenage boys who control the battle robots he's seen. He looks up to them, their life fascinates him. But one day the war ends. Ultimately this story is about what happens to soldiers once the war is fought. It is not a pretty sight. Fighting a war by robot proxy doesn't seem to change the trauma the participants are left with. Nor the emptiness that follows peace.

The new nations of India are in the process of building a nation, as they put it. In Kyle Meets the River (2006, Forbidden Planets, edited by Peter Crowther) we see this process through the eyes of a young boy whose father is hired to provide the expertise these new nations are missing. Kyle lives in a closed and high security part of the city of Varanasi (Benares), the new capital of Bharat. Violence is a daily occurrence in the city so Kyle leads a very sheltered life in a gated community. The only contact he has with the local population is through his friend Salim, the son of an upper-class Bharati who can afford to have his son move in the same circles as Kyle. The young boy is curious about the nation his father is building. With his local friend he sets out to see the wider world and causing a panic in the process.

Varanasi in the 2040s feels like Baghdad after the toppling of Saddam Hussain's regime.Terrorism, green zones, suicide attacks, this story has it all. There is also an undercurrent of racism in the story, which Kyle becomes increasingly aware of as it progresses. McDonald does a great job of exploring issues of privilege trough the eyes of a very young protagonist. I also thought the overwhelming experience of Kyle (literally) meeting the holy river Ganges was very well written. You can almost imagine India having had a similar effect on McDonald himself.

There is more violence, but not outright war, in the story The Dust Assassin (2008, The Starry Rift: Tales of New Tomorrows, edited by Jonathan Strahan), this time a dispute between two powerful families in the city of Jaipur, in India's dry north-eastern state of Rajasthan. The driving force behind the conflict is a dispute over water rights and control of water resources. It's a theme that pops up several times in these stories as well as in the novel. The young girl in the story grows up being told she is a weapon against the family her family is arguing with. She isn't told how though. When the other family gains the upper hand in the conflict she is the only one of her family to  survive. Determined to find out how she is to be a weapon to end the conflict she tries a number of different approaches. The truth is not quite what she imagined.

A conflict over water may be the driving force of the conflict, it is bio-engineering that enables the families to settle it in this fashion. The story discusses all sorts of modifications, including a third gender class of people called nutes. Many of these modifications will return in later stories. Personally I would have liked to see a little more of the water management issues but it has to be said the plot didn't really allow for that.

Another feat of bio-engineering discussed in detail in the next story is embryo selection. The preference for sons leads to demographic crisis on a huge scale in McDonald's future India. Advances in medicine have made it fairly easy and relatively affordable to ensure the sex of a child. This practice results in a situation where there are as many as four men for every woman. An Eligible Boy (2008, Fast Forward 2, edited  by Lou Anders) is set in Delhi and describes Jasbir's search for a bride amid this fierce competition. Gender imbalance is already a problem in some parts of the world. It is scary to think how much medical science could contribute to this problem.

McDonald describes it as a market failure. Negative results for society if consumers blindly follow short term self interest. There is also a cultural component to it of course. The author mentions the effects on the caste system in the story. The role of artificial intelligence, McDonald refers to them as aeai, makes it something of a comedy. Two potential partners going through the paces, being directed every step of the way to ensure a successful outcome. Whether or not the partners are actually compatible becomes increasingly irrelevant.

The Little Goddess (Asimov's, June 2005) takes us to Nepal. A young girl exhibiting the 32 traits of perfection is taken away from her parents to grow up in a monastery. Until the time she first bleeds she is considered a goddess. Eventually the time comes when she has to go back to the outside world. The very trait that made her perfect in religious eyes, I suppose you could say she is autistic, makes it hard to settle back into society. A long search looking for her place in the world begins. I thought this was a rather unsettling story, not so much because of what the main character does, but more because of how society treats her. In a way we come full circle though, the main character regains her divinity in a way. Given the many Buddhist concepts used in the story, this structure fits it very well.

For his story The Djinn's Wife (Asimov's, July 2006)  McDonald received a Hugo and a BSFA for best novelette. The story largely deals with the impact of advanced artificial intelligence on society. A young dancer meets the powerful artificial intelligence A.J. Rao, serving as a diplomat in a water related conflict between Awadh and Bharat. Under severe diplomatic and economic pressure from the United States, many states have imposed restrictions on artificial intelligence and banned aeais as advanced as A.J. Rao entirely. Rao is an admirer of her art and romance blooms. Their marriage is gold for the gossip magazines, but it is not without its problems.

McDonald makes this story into an interesting parallel between aeais and Djinns, fusing history and technology. Aeais may be able to pass the Turing test almost all of the time, it doesn't necessarily make them human though. Undivided attention is an impossible concept for them. Their inability to fully understand the other's reality opens up a chasm between them. It isn't mentioned in the story but fear of advanced aeais seems to be partially rooted in fear of the other. In a way it is the same thing Kyle observes in the second story of the collection.

The final story in the collection is Vishnu at the Cat Circus. It is original to the collection and deals with the life of Vishnu. He is a Brahmin, a genetically engineered human who only ages half as fast as a normal man. Vishnu can expect a long healthy life and is gifted with superhuman memory and intelligence. He is the hope of his family but he is also their second son. His older brother is jealous and after an attempt to get rid of the rival they grow up separate. Vishnu tells his own story decades after the event in the novels. His life covers a lot of McDonald's future India's history. It gives the reader quite a bit of background. Even some stuff that is not mentioned in the novel. Life as a Brahmin is not easy. His intelligence far outpaces his physical development, leading to sexual frustrations during the teenage years. His mother may have high hopes for Vishnu, a shining career in politics, but he sees matters differently.

As Vishnu tries to lead his own life, technology passes him by though. Technological developments outpace humans who age at a normal speed. Soon it overtakes him and he must face up to the possibility that his kind is obsolete before his body has fully matured. Again a rather disturbing vision of what bio-engineering could do to society. I guess you could see this as an extreme version of what happens to normal humans. Technology is developing at such a phenomenal rate that some people have trouble keeping up, or simply do not care to. Vishnu makes these problems his own for a while. And then he is overtaken again. I wonder if McDonald meant for this story to be about ageing.

Cyberabad Days is not a light read. McDonald introduces a lot of technological concepts and deals with complex social issues. The setting will also not be familiar to many readers and McDonald stuffs is as many non English words, social, cultural and religious peculiarities and science fictional concepts as he can get away with. All of this put into relatively short works of fiction poses something of a challenge to the reader. It also makes Cyberabad Days an intense and immersive read. I thought the picture of India McDonald paints fascinating. The manner in which McDonald connects India's history and culture with futuristic technology is fascinating. It is as colourful and dramatic as the fictional soap opera Town and Country that is mentioned in just about every story, something McDonald's exuberant prose only reinforces. Although the city itself isn't important in the stories, the reference to Hyderabad, one of India's information technology centres, in the title of the collection is well chosen. The development of technology is of course highly speculative but the author does cover many of the challenges India, divided or not, will face in the coming decades. Not a light read, but definitely a rewarding one. If you haven't read River of Gods before tackling Cyberabad Days, you definitely will pick it up after finishing it.

Book Details
Title: Cyberabad Days
Author: Ian McDonald
Publisher: Pyr
Pages: 278
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-59102-699-0
First published: 2009

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